The wine glass almost remained upright but teetered and then fell to the cream-colored carpet.
“Shit! Owen, watch what you’re doing.”
Owen rushed to get a towel to mop up the spilled wine. At least the glass hadn’t broken. As he daubed at the spill, he said with slightly slurred speech, “Sorry. It’s not like you’ve never spilled.”
From his spot kneeling on the floor, Owen saw Jeremy watching from the dining room. The boy’s face seemed to express a curious combination of anger, sadness, and disgust. Owen wished that they hadn’t agreed to foster him, but many of their friends were forming families with children. Children were almost fashionable.
He and Jens had hoped that the boy would provide a center around which they could overcome difficulties they had had since the beginning of their relationship. They both had heard from other gay couples who had adopted how much becoming parents had brought to their relationships. Maybe an adoption would bring the same to them.
The arguments about whether to foster a girl or a boy had almost wrecked them before Owen had thrown in the towel and agreed to a boy. Now, Owen wondered daily whether or not he should have held out for a girl. A girl, he thought, would have been so much easier. And then the illness came to the boy.
Jeremy was a constant reminder of the struggle they faced. How much could reasonable men be expected to give a child? He and Jens had lives of their own to live. Besides, Jeremy’s doctor was such a scold. The boy loved Dr. Underhill, though, and she was the best. They wouldn’t have their friends say they weren’t providing the best for their foster child.
* * * * *
Sitting in the darkened hospital room with the little girl and her family, Dr. Annie-Violet Underhill – Vee to her patients – mulled over the meaning of courage, something she saw in so many of her patients and their families. Courage, she mused, comes late to most people, and to some it never comes. Courage often develops at the outset of an illness, ahead of the fear that turns to stark terror when people experience the possibility of losing someone precious. Courage in many, though, is a reaction to the clear presence of that possibility.
If Vee couldn’t help all her young patients survive, she could help them achieve what she thought was the appropriate mix of fear, purpose, anger, and, if they were fortunate, peace. She couldn’t, however, give many of them as much time as they deserved.
The hospital room was quiet, even with the breathing of the girl whose time had almost ended. Vee wouldn’t allow the machinery in the hospital room that was used to measure life and its end; there would be no beeping and alarms.
She had urged the mother and father to climb onto the bed to hold their child. The girl probably was now unaware of the despair and fear that surrounded her. The patient’s older sister was close to the bedside, holding her sister’s hand. When Vee had summoned the family, she had quietly told them that, although they had tried to prepare for this moment, no one could adequately do so. The family had needed the common reassurances — that their daughter and sister was not in pain and that they had done as well as any family could in this circumstance – and they would grieve and then live.
Twenty minutes elapsed between the time Vee knew that her patient had died and the recognition of the awful fact by the family. The dead persist by the will of the living. Then, the quiet tears, gifts to God or the Fates – the recognition of death.
Vee had seen courage in this little girl in her last conscious hours.
Vee had seen courage in many forms as she was growing up, and she had no patience for bigotry or self-righteousness that tested and sometimes destroyed the courage of the weak or less fortunate.
As she watched the family gathered at this child’s bedside, she thought of her own family. Vee knew from youth what she would do in her life: medicine. Her grandfather had worked as an oncologist, and she had seen the toll the work had taken on him as he aged. But just as he had not, so she had not become senselessly angry at life and loss.
She had a brother and a cousin who were physicians. Her only brother, Marshall, was the finest man she had ever known. As they had grown up together in Portland, Oregon, and at their grandfathers’ house in Goldendale, Washington, her brittle and ironic sense of humor hadn’t prevented her from caring about her family and about the fate of sick children.
She didn’t make a point of demonstrating the fact that, of her generation, she was the brightest; she didn’t have to. Her family, teachers, and her mentors all knew. She had breezed through school — undergraduate studies at Caltech, where her late uncle had held an endowed chair in mathematics; medical school at the University of Minnesota before internal-medicine and oncology residencies in Boston and New York and postdoctoral fellowships and certification in pediatric oncology.
During her training, senior residents and house officers had often misjudged the small, young, intense woman. She could not be bullied, because she was easily as brilliant as her teachers and mentors. She was, they discovered, everything they had wanted to be at her age, and her quiet authority left most of them shaking their heads.
One experience eluded her as she rose in her profession: love. To say that finding a partner took too much effort because of her work was a self-deception she couldn’t tolerate. She simply wasn’t sufficiently interested in making the effort. It was not as if she didn’t understand the options in relationships. Her brother was bisexual and married to a remarkable woman. He and his wife shared a house and a long-lasting relationship with another couple. One of her cousins, an anesthesiologist, was married to a celebrated cellist, a woman born in a male body. Another was a lawyer, a wealthy and stubbornly single, straight man who seemed content with serial monogamy.
* * * * *
“I feel good — I mean better than for a while.” Jeremy was seeing Vee in her office for a weekly checkup.
Vee knew that the improvement resulted from stopping the chemotherapy, which didn’t work well anyway in his cancer. Her patients sometimes experienced a sort of happy summer between the cessation of therapy, which amounted to surrender to the inevitable, and the autumn and winter of a precipitous decline. She had worked on a targeted treatment for NUT Midline Carcinoma, Jeremy’s cancer, when she was at Dana-Farber in Boston and had used a second generation Histone Deacetylase inhibitor on Jeremy. She and he had ground out a longer life than most kids with NMC managed, but now the HDAC inhibitor was losing its effect. She could clearly see, and he could vaguely sense, the approaching winter.
Only because Vee had trained and worked at one of the premier cancer centers in the country, where rare pediatric cancers were commonly seen, was Jeremy’s disease diagnosed promptly. The usual confusion of the disease with Ewing’s Sarcoma or lymphoma had been avoided.
Jeremy was fourteen and in most ways normal – in the sense that his height was statistically average for his age as his weight had been before he became ill. Now he was underweight but not emaciated. His hair was brown and worn so that it feathered over his collars in the back and covered the tops of his small ears.
“I’m glad to see you happier. You want to come out to Goldendale with me for the week of Thanksgiving?” The boy had visited Goldendale once before.
“Anything to get out of the funeral home.”
Vee sighed, she hoped not audibly. “What’s going on at home?”
“You won’t tell them what I say, right?” He didn’t tell her how lonely he felt at home, how much of a burden he felt he was for his foster fathers.
“They can’t look at me without imagining me in a casket, and they’re fighting a lot — and drinking. Maybe I’m the reason. I don’t think I’m what they wanted. I try not to screw things up for them, but being sick makes that hard sometimes.”
From her experience, Vee knew that occasionally parents became so wrapped in their own needs and grief that they lose sight of the dying child. Jeremy’s fathers had not impressed Vee as a particularly strong couple. They seemed almost competitive about which of them was suffering the most from poor Jeremy’s disease. The men didn’t give the fourteen year-old boy much room for his own sadness and confusion. Vee had tried to give the boy cover because she hadn’t been able to find anything to say to the fathers that changed their behavior.
“You feel as if you’re in a casket?”
“No. Well, maybe once in a while. I am though, aren’t I?” He thought she probably saw how tired of struggling he was, but he wasn’t going to whine.
“We’re all going to die. You’ll have to wait your turn like the rest of us.” The boy bit his lower lip lightly and nodded.
“I’m not making excuses for them,” Vee continued, “but neither you nor I understand what it means to a parent to have a child go through this. Still, their behavior pisses me off, and you shouldn’t have to spend your energy supporting them. You’re the kid. If I can find a way to talk to them about the drinking without ratting you out, I will.”
“Think they’ll let me come?”
“I’m pretty sure they will. By the way, Lucas might be in Goldendale, too.” Vee smiled at Jeremy and reached out to touch his forearm. “I can be persuasive with Owen and Jens.”
Dr. Underhill had never lied to him or to his fathers, and even when he was so miserable that he screamed at her in pain and anger, she told him the truth with kindness. She also told his fathers the truth, even when it upset them.
When he had first met her, Jeremy couldn’t tell how old she was. He still didn’t know, but the other doctors and the nurses treated her as if she were God Almighty, and not because they feared her. She wasn’t much taller than he was and was small all over. Maybe her slight body made her less threatening, but he loved her most for her wicked sense of humor, even about dying, and because she listened to him. Rarely, he could see her sadness about his situation, but she never tried to escape her own sadness by telling him to ignore his. She had promised him that if the time came, she would be with him.
Also, he liked Vee’s family. Her brother and his cousins were in a cool band. They only played a few times a year, but he had seen their performances on YouTube, and when he had gone to Goldendale last summer, he had met her nephew, Lucas, with whom he had instantly struck a friendship. They emailed or texted several times a week.
“Hell, yeah, you can be. Sign me up.”
* * * * *
She threw her keys on the table in the entrance hallway to her home in Portland’s Pearl District, a three-bedroom condo in which her grandfathers had lived. She didn’t need three bedrooms, but her connection to the place was so strong that she would never consider selling it. When she had come back from the East Coast to work at Knight Cancer Center at Oregon Health Sciences University, her brother and cousins had suggested that she buy their shares in the apartment.
The condo only buzzed with the activity of children and family during the rare occasions when her extended family met in Portland. Most of the time, only one quiet resident trod the rooms and hallways or sat in the mornings and evenings on the balcony overlooking the Willamette River.
With a glass of water poured from the pitcher in the fridge in hand, she kicked her shoes off and plopped onto a sofa in the living area. After a couple of deep swallows, she reached for the phone and smiled as she pushed the buttons.
At the familiar voice, she said, “Hey, brother.”
“You okay, Vee?”
“Lose another one?”
She answered in the same way she had always spoken to Marshall. “I despair when you say crap like that. I know exactly where her body is; I haven’t lost anyone.”
“You get cranky when you’re sad. You’re allowed to be sad, you know?”
“I know. I’m taking Jeremy out to Goldendale next week for a few days. No one else is going to be there, right?”
“Not that I know. Winter’s not the greatest time to be there.”
“He’s probably run out of summers.”
“You might be more comfortable at Turing House than at our place. Jerry wouldn’t mind.”
“Oh, please. That place reeks of Uncle Luke, and I’d rather be in a place that reeks of Just Grampa.” JG, for short, was the name the grandchildren in her generation had given their surviving grandfather.
“You’re still coming to Seattle for Christmas? You haven’t seen us for a while; Mom and Dad miss you. Come to think of it, I miss you, and so do Terri, Mark, and Jill. We want you to meet a great single doctor we know.”
Vee, hearing her brother’s quiet laughter after his last comment, sighed and replied, “I’ll be there. Promise. Oh, you wouldn’t consider sending the hellion down for a few days, would you?”
“He has the week off for Thanksgiving, and I’m sure he’d be happy to see you since you’re his hero. You want me to let Rodrigo know you’re coming so he can open up JG’s house?”
“No, thanks. I’ll call him.”
* * * * *
The next afternoon, Vee spotted Owen and Jens sitting in the oncology waiting room as she hurried back from morning rounds through the crowded corridor. If her progress could have been seen from above, she would have been described as having some force that caused others to move from her path before she reached them. Jeremy’s foster fathers seemed anxious, and in this case, she didn’t regret her part in their discomfort. “Hi, guys. Give me a minute to check with Padraig.”
Vee worked with her own physician’s assistant, a bright young man who felt very much at home working with her. Vee paid his salary, but he was accorded every privilege of a university employee. He saw patients with her and acted as her scribe, charting notes, filling out test requisitions, and preparing prescriptions for her signature. He also handled follow-up visits for some patients. She stuck her head through the door to Padraig’s office. “Everything okay?”
“Good, Doc,” the ruddy-faced, young man with coal-black hair and blue eyes answered. Everyone at the hospital who didn’t know him assumed that he and Dr. Underhill were paired; those who knew him understood that he wouldn’t have had a romance with a woman. He extended condolences about the death of their patient; although she didn’t show it, he knew that she grieved at the death of any kid in her care. She nodded without changing expression and told him that she was meeting with Owen and Jens. He sighed noticeably and smiled a tight-lipped smile.
Vee had to reach up to hug almost anyone except her very young patients, and she reached up to hug Jeremy’s foster parents after they rose at her approach. “Come on in, guys.”
When they were all seated in her small office, she behind her desk and they in chairs immediately in front of it, she waited; she found that letting the family begin the discussion allowed her to better respond to their needs. These two behaved as if they had been summoned to the principal’s office, and in fact she had asked them to come in.
When neither of the men spoke, she finally asked, “So, how’re you holding up?”
Owen looked at Jens before proceeding. They were having difficulty meeting her steady gaze. “We’re okay, but it’s harder than we thought it would be.”
Jens took over. “It’s like we planned for some future that will never be. We counted on Jeremy being with us for the duration.”
Vee’s anger wasn’t obvious to the men. “Well, Jeremy has been as courageous as any kid with his disease I’ve known. But, he is a kid; he needs adults to tend to him. As I’ve mentioned before, cancer is a family disease, and I know that you’re under a lot of stress. Sometimes that kind of stress can lead adults to try to escape — with alcohol or drugs. Sometimes you can dig a deep hole before you know you’re doing it.”
Jens didn’t look happy. “We’re fine, and we aren’t self-medicating.”
“I didn’t suggest that you were; I just want to point out some common pitfalls.” These guys are so full of shit. The two men became deferential because God Almighty had just quietly spoken.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to get huffy.”
“You can’t support Jeremy in the way he needs to be supported by yourselves. I suggest you try to find some support for yourselves as you help Jeremy.”
Owen replied icily, “Yeah, we’ll see what we can do.”
“Talk to Myra.” Myra was the hospital social worker assigned to their case. “I’d like to help. How about I take Jeremy to Goldendale for a few days before Thanksgiving? My nephew and he have become buddies, and they could hang out together. You’d have some time to recharge yourselves, too.”
The two men looked at each other and couldn’t conceal their relief at the invitation. Owen spoke for them, “That would be fine. I know he likes …”
Vee let him hang for a moment before finishing the sentence. “Luke.” They don’t have an inkling of Jeremy’s life.
“Of course. When should we have him at your place?”
“Monday morning, say at nine.”
* * * * *
As Vee was reviewing treatment plans with Padraig two hours after Jeremy’s foster fathers left her office, her desk phone rang. She didn’t like to be interrupted, something the department assistant knew well, so Vee figured that the call must be important. Picking up the phone, she couldn’t conceal her irritation completely. “Holly, what’s up?”
“Sorry to interrupt, but I knew you’d want this one. Yves is on the line.”
Vee smiled and shrugged at Padraig, holding up the index finger of her right hand. When the call was transferred, she began warmly, “Yves, quoi de neuf?”
“Pas grand chose.” The rest of the answer came in barely accented English, “Well, that’s not exactly true. We have just finished the testing on the next generation of HDI. We’ve used it once, and it shows great promise. I want to send you a supply to try as part of the Phase I trial.”
Her heart rate accelerated, and she was startled at how joyful she felt. Calming herself, she replied, “Send it on. I only have one case of NMC now, but we’ll give it a try. I’ll be in touch. Je te remercie.”
Replacing the handset, Vee smiled and answered the question on Padraig’s face, “Yves’s lab has developed the next generation HDI, and we’re going to try it on Jeremy.”
* * * * *
The door buzzer sounded and she pressed the speaker button. Jeremy’s voice announced, “I’ve been dropped.”
As she pushed the button to unlock the outer door to the building, she thought, like the morning newspaper.
Jeremy knew that the front door to the apartment would be open, and he let himself in, lugging his duffel bag. With a deep breath, he dropped it in the hallway before walking into the living area. Vee was getting some trash ready for the bin, but turned from the task to walk over and hug the boy. She felt him almost melt into her embrace. He wasn’t hugged at home. Before she pulled away, she stroked his back. “Pastries, fruit, and milk on the counter in case you didn’t get breakfast.”
“They were in a hurry to deposit me.” Jeremy went to the counter and began to eat melon slices and a Danish. Noting the untouched glass of milk, Vee poured a glass of orange juice for the boy and leaned across the counter to hand it to him. Watching him eat was a joy because he had had no appetite when he was on chemo and radiation. Whether or not the new HDI worked, he would have no appetite again in a few weeks or at best months. Now, though, he needed calories.
She felt a sudden pang that she located in what she thought of as her superfluous uterus. Oh, shit. She had never felt maternal toward any of her patients, and she didn’t like the dawning notion that she did toward this child.
Compared to a lot of foster kids she knew, Jeremy was well off materially — good clothes, shoes, and the right toys. But she thought his life emotionally impoverished. Because every indication was that his life would be a short one, he could do with fewer toys and more snuggling.
By the time she carried her bag from her room, he had managed another Danish and finished the OJ. “You ready for the drive?”
“Is there snow in the Gorge?”
“A little. I-84 seems okay.”
“You drive like a maniac.” He was smiling — not complaining – just commenting.
“I’ll be careful.” She rinsed the dishes and started the dishwasher. “Down to the car with us.”
Belted in the Volvo XC90 R-Design, they went through a drive-through at a Boyd’s coffee shop on the east side of the Willamette to pick up large hot chocolates. Shortly thereafter they were out on the interstate for the two-hour drive. While Jeremy got the drinks settled in cup holders and unwrapped the scone he had ordered, Vee managed the traffic. When they were on the eastern extreme of the city, she told the boy, “Put some music on.”
Jeremy smiled at her, thinking briefly that she looked like a small kid behind the wheel of the Volvo, and pulled his phone out. He plugged it into the AUX port on the dash, and soon the strains of the Outliers playing “Modern Boys” filled the car.
She frowned over a suppressed grin. “That won’t do. They’re okay, but I want something new, something I haven’t heard before.”
“No, I won’t. Promise.”
Jeremy fiddled with his phone for a few seconds, and then mandolin music accompanied by a fiddle poured out of the speaker system followed by a voice she vaguely recognized. When the song about the singer’s Uncle Pen finished, the boy looked at Vee sideways and saw that she wasn’t laughing. “You didn’t laugh.”
“I promised. Besides, bluegrass is okay, although I’m more of a Ricky Skaggs-Alison Krause person.”
“Most of my friends think it’s lame.” He seemed to think for a few moments. “I don’t think there’s a God, but I like the sound of bluegrass, and I think Bill Monroe is a kind of god, and I’ll give you that Vince Gill was once close.” Then with a smile he told her, “Lucas is my only friend who thinks it’s cool.”
“So, what’s cool about bluegrass to you?”
He thought for moment. “The one I played, ‘Uncle Pen,’ is about Monroe’s Uncle Pendleton. Monroe went to live with his uncle after his mother and father died. In the song, a bunch of families play music together up on a hill. Anyway, a lot of family groups play bluegrass. I like that.”
“I’m proud of you, and I think that you’re cool for paying attention to what moves you instead of only what your friends listen to.”
The rest of the journey to Goldendale was taken with the music of Bill Monroe, Clarence White, Vassar Clements, Del McCoury, Earl Scruggs, Tony Rice, and Jimmy Martin, accompanied by Jeremy’s intelligent commentary. The conversation reminded Vee of the ones she had with her parents and her grandparents about music, books, and life. By the time the trip ended and they pulled up to the farmhouse where her father and uncle had grown up, Vee had stopped arguing with her maternal feelings for the boy.
* * * * *
The house was cold — not just chilly but keep-your-coat-and-gloves-on cold. Jeremy hadn’t been here in the winter, and after they dumped their bags in the living room, Vee took Jeremy outside to the woodpile, which was close to but not touching the house. Rodrigo had made sure that they would have plenty of wood. They made three trips to collect enough to fill the crib next to the wood stove. She showed the boy how to lay the fire in the belly of the old stove and watched as he lit the kindling. Within five minutes, the fire was blazing and the stove beginning to radiate heat to the room.
The house had a gas furnace, but Vee always started a fire in the stove before turning on the furnace. She took the bundled-up boy down to the clean basement and showed him how to light the pilot light and start up the furnace that would heat their bedrooms and all the other rooms of the home save the living room. When they had returned to the living room, she suggested that he take his bag and get settled in his room. As he trudged up the stairs lugging the duffel, she observed that he seemed fatigued. She went to the kitchen and began to heat milk and melt dark chocolate for hot cocoa.
By the time Jeremy returned from his room, the hot chocolate was waiting on a low coffee table that three generations had used. Vee looked up from her place at one end of the sofa and patted the place beside her. Jeremy smiled and sidled between the sofa and the table, taking a seat so that his shoulder touched Vee’s. The chocolate in the boy’s pottery mug, thrown by her Uncle Jerry, a well-known artist, was topped with miniature marshmallows, while hers was free of the melted white goop.
The boy took a bite of the shortbread from a small plate she had placed on the table and washed the mouthful down with warm chocolate. His swallow left him with a slight mustache of marshmallow and hot chocolate. She handed him a napkin, which he used to clean his upper lip.
Vee wanted the room to warm thoroughly before she opened the curtains; the room’s only light came from an old floor lamp near the sofa. “We’re going to get fat,” he joked.
“You could stand a little more weight,” she commented as she leaned lightly into him.
He sighed, and they finished the drinks and cookies in silence. In the minutes after they finished, Jeremy leaned against Vee with more force, and she turned her head to see him falling asleep. “Here. Turn around and put your head in my lap.”
The boy, suppressing a yawn, complied and in less than a minute was asleep, his legs stretching away from Vee on the sofa. She waited until she was sure he was asleep before lightly smoothing his hair and stroking his cheek. Then she gently pulled a knitted afghan from the back of the sofa and spread it over the boy’s frame. Sitting in the dim light while Jeremy slept, she mulled over her hope that the third generation HDI, a treatment for which she held only the faintest confidence, would be in Portland soon. She didn’t like the feeling that was settling on her: desperation about helping this boy.
Vee started awake when Jeremy raised his head. In a husky voice, he said, “Whoa, sorry I flaked out on you.” He sat up, shaking his head, and let the afghan drop from his shoulders.
“You had a long car ride.” The room was now warm enough that she stood and went about the room opening curtains to admit the winter light of the early afternoon.
“When’s Luke coming in?”
“You tired of my company already?” She saw the look of concern on his face and was immediately sorry for the comment. “I’m just kidding, Jeremy.”
She changed the subject: “Lucas is coming in on Amtrak; I thought we’d pick him up and have dinner after he gets here.”
Jeremy walked over to Vee and, looking at the floor, whispered, “I don’t think I could have done this without you. Having someone really care about me is the most important thing in my life.”
“I know, Jeremy. You didn’t hurt my feelings, and I’m sorry I made you think that you might have, but you’re no wilting flower, and if I can’t kid you about Luke, we’re both in trouble.”
* * * * *
Wishram is a town of 200 people sitting at river level several hundred feet below WA-14, the highway that parallels the Columbia River and the railroad tracks. The town was once a railway center at the junction of lines going east-west and south across the only bridge in 100 miles. The line south climbed up the west bank of the Deschutes River canyon into eastern Oregon and eventually on to California.
Climbing the Deschutes canyon on the east side of the river was one of Vee’s favorite places. The roadbed of a former rival railroad had been converted into a 17-mile hiking and biking trail – a trail on which Vee and her family members would ride their bikes in the spring when the grasses were lush green and the balsamroot was in bloom before it got too warm.
With the advent of diesel engines and the abandonment of passenger service on the line to the south, Wishram languished till it just took care of a railroad yard. However, it still had an Amtrak station, which was the farthest east of the two Amtrak stations between Vancouver and Pasco and the nearest to Goldendale. The station now is just a platform with no ticket office and no facilities except for a small waiting room with a couple of chairs and vending machines in a building with offices of the BNSF Railroad. The building is a sickly brownish-orange color.
Lucas Underhill, named for his father’s late uncle, had taken the train from Seattle south to Vancouver and then boarded the eastbound Empire Builder from Vancouver to Wishram. He wasn’t particularly fond of the trip, but none of his parents could drive him this time, and he never minded a little inconvenience to spend time with his aunt, whom he found the coolest adult he knew. Seeing Jeremy would be an added pleasure. He had never told Jeremy that he found the boy attractive; he didn’t know if the boy was gay, but he knew that Jeremy needed friends, and friendship would be enough. He wasn’t usually reticent around boys his age to whom he was attracted, but, irritatingly, he felt shy around Jeremy.
As he waited for Vee and Jeremy to pick him up, he stood almost alone with his large backpack in the cold on the lee side of the building and away from the tracks. He wasn’t concerned about his safety; he looked older than his age and was tall, like his father. His hair, like his father’s, was blond and, unlike his father’s, was straight, although he kept it quite short.
He also carried a spring-loaded, four-inch Benchmade folding knife that he had purchased at the REI coop without his parents’ knowledge. In fact, he did a lot without his parents’ knowledge, which was difficult because he had, de facto, four parents — two biologicals and two others in their ménage à quatre.
His aunt had told him that he was lucky because all four were good people. He wasn’t more than casually interested in the sexual combinations among them, although he understood that there were many, including those between his father and Mark, but he did see how hard they worked at loving each other.
The cold wind through the Columbia River gorge didn’t cut through his heavy Carhartt jacket and gloves, but it did sting his exposed face a bit. He had called Vee to let her know that, in a winter miracle, the train had come in early, and she had told him that they had left the house and were on the way.
Vee had introduced Lucas to Jeremy during last summer’s visit to Goldendale. Knowing that the boy was very ill, he had asked his aunt how he should treat him and how he should talk to him. “He’s not dead, Luke. Treat him as you would anyone else,” she had told him. So he did, and aside from the fatigue Jeremy often felt, Lucas found him engaging, fun, and possessed of an ironic sense of life and death. He found himself thinking of Jeremy when he had returned from Goldendale to Seattle at last summer’s end. He didn’t think that Jeremy had many friends, perhaps because his illness frightened potential friends. Also, as far as he could tell, Jeremy didn’t have the same kind of parental love that he had experienced.
The crunch of the Volvo’s tires over the gravel on the parking lot interrupted his musing. As he walked to the car, Vee pulled into a space, and she and Jeremy got out of the car to greet her nephew. Luke set his pack down at the rear of the car and hugged his shorter aunt. He and Jeremy shared the awkward male-adolescent quandary about how to greet each other. Luke ended the hesitation by taking a chance and hugging Jeremy. He smelled the other boy’s shampoo, and Vee noted that they held the hug a little longer than usual for two boys. She’d have to talk with Lucas about that.
For his part, Lucas realized that the impetus for his embrace of Jeremy wasn’t pity or some need to take care of his friend. No, this was what? Love, lust, humanity? After he stuffed his pack in the back of the Volvo, his aunt suggested with just a hint of smile that the boys sit together in the back seat. Lucas shook his head slightly, unhappy that his motives were apparently so transparent, and hoped he hadn’t made Jeremy uncomfortable.
They stopped at the Goldendale IGA for groceries on the way to the farmhouse. Lucas had grown up in a family of cooks. His father and mother and his other set of parents, as well as his uncles all loved to cook, and he was beginning to learn. Tonight, judging by what she bought, Vee was going to make a chicken cacciatore that she liked to serve over polenta.
“We have popcorn at home?” Lucas asked his aunt.
“Don’t know. Pick some up.”
In the aisle with the popcorn, Lucas ran into a kid from Goldendale that he knew. Lucas’s family had had a sort of mixed history in the little town, and not everyone was fond of them, but Larry wasn’t a homophobic lunatic or a xenophobe.
“Lucas! What the hell are you doing here in the winter?”
“Just visiting on my school break. Larry, you remember Jeremy from the summer.”
“Yeah, how are you?”
Jeremy and Larry did the ritual greeting gestures before Larry said to Lucas, “If you have time maybe we could go skiing.”
“Let me see what’s planned. I’ll text you.” Lucas saw Jeremy’s expression darken.
After the IGA, they stopped at the bakery of the St. John the Forerunner monastery just before it closed to pick up a loaf of good bread. Vee had Lucas buy the bread because she didn’t have much use for the religious. Lucas thought that this was the way adults worked: if the bread is good, find a way around your objections.
* * * * *
Because the house had no television, the boys talked after dinner. Vee was in the office where Tom Jansen, JG’s husband and her other grandfather, used to write his best-selling novels. Lucas thought the room was Vee’s Fortress of Solitude where she seemed to absorb the aura of her dead grandparent. Lucas sometimes sat there in the summer and read the books that made his great-grandfather famous.
The light from the study spilled onto the Persian rug on the living-room floor. Jeremy sat on the floor facing away from Lucas on the couch. Lucas gently rubbed his shoulders because his friend needed to be touched and to feel some physical relief from his lingering pain. The boys hadn’t arrived at this arrangement by discussion; the exchange seemed natural.
After a few minutes of feeling Lucas’s firm touch, Jeremy leaned his head back and said, “You should go if you want to.”
Lucas took his hands off Jeremy’s shoulders. “What?”
“Skiing with Larry. Go if you want.”
“You know he meant cross-country skiing, not downhill?”
“No, but I don’t think I can do that, either.”
“I’d rather spend time with you.”
“I don’t need your pity …” then Jeremy’s voice softened. “… and I don’t want you to miss out on fun by hanging with me.”
Lucas turned Jeremy’s shoulders with his hands until his friend was almost facing the sofa, ignoring the slight wince from pain that Jeremy felt in his chest. He intended to tell him to be quiet and listen to him, but leaned down and kissed him. He hadn’t intended to do that, and he felt Jeremy tense during the kiss, his face becoming almost hard like the plastic of waiting-room chairs. He pulled back, wishing he could undo the last thirty seconds and wondering if Jeremy would freak. “I don’t want to spend my time with you because of pity, asswipe, and you’re fun.”
“You’re the asswipe,” Jeremy responded with a slight smile. “No one’s ever kissed me … well, you know, except when I was little. Thanks.”
“Thanks? You’re okay?”
Before Jeremy could answer, Vee wandered into the room. “I’m whipped. You two should think about bed.” Both the boys blushed noticeably, but she let their reaction pass.
The boys waited until Vee had walked upstairs to her room before they began to talk again. “Well, it wasn’t the worst experience I’ve ever had. I wouldn’t have figured you for gay, though. You are gay?”
“If you knew my parents, you’d know how silly that question is. You ready to go up?”
Jeremy yawned. “I’m tired.”
Lucas stood and held his hands out to Jeremy who was still seated on the floor. He helped Jeremy to his feet and began to turn to walk upstairs when Jeremy kissed him quickly, leaving Lucas stock-still, before walking up the stairs. “Hey! Wait a minute.”
Hearing no answer, Luke ran to the staircase, took the stairs two a time, and caught up with Jeremy in the hall. He didn’t want to broadcast their conversation to his aunt, and he whispered, “What was that about?”
Jeremy smiled and walked to the door of his room. Lucas followed. “Oh, no you don’t. No hiding in your room.”
“So come in then, and we’ll talk.”
* * * * *
The room had twin beds, a desk, a chest with drawers, and a couple of bedside tables. Lucas thought he remembered his aunt telling him that his great uncles, Jason and Jonathan, once used this room. The boys sat side by side on one of the twin beds. Lucas decided to give Jeremy a little time before getting back to the last kiss. “So, you still hurting bad?”
Jeremy sighed before answering. “Not as bad as when I was on chemo and stuff. I think it’s going to get worse pretty quick now.”
Lucas put his arm around Jeremy’s shoulders. “Maybe not. Aunt Vee’s wicked good.”
“Yeah, maybe not.” Jeremy turned to look at Lucas. “Look, I don’t know why I kissed you. I mean, I’m not gay.”
“You think it’s wrong for straight guys to kiss gay guys?”
“It didn’t feel wrong. Most of my friends are afraid to have anything to do with me. You’re my best friend.” He said this as if it were a pitiable condition.
Now Lucas sighed and leaned his head to touch Jeremy’s. “Yes, I am, and tomorrow I’m going to teach you how to ski.”
Lucas stood and leaned over to kiss the top of Jeremy’s head before walking to his own room and collapsing, frustrated, on the bed.
* * * * *
After hearing the boys make their ways up the stairs and down the hall, Vee climbed into bed before she picked up her phone. After finding her cousin Sam’s contact information she made the call. She expected to get his voicemail, but he answered quickly. “Hey, cousin, how’s the best and brightest?”
“I’m okay. I’m in Goldendale with a patient and Lucas.”
“Yeah, Marshall told me. What’s up?”
“You in a hurry? Am I interrupting something?”
“No. In fact, you’ve caught me in one of my rare unattached and celibate states.”
“Uncle Jerry must despair.”
“Dad has nothing to worry about. We can’t all find unending love, and he knows that. The patient is … Jeremy?”
“You and Marshall really do talk.”
“He’s a little worried that you’ve lost your objectivity with this one.”
In a house full of sighs that evening, Vee added hers. “Well, if it helps, I’m not happy about that.”
“Anything I can do to help?”
“Help me adopt him.”
* * * * *
The morning sun was an indistinct blob behind the thin, high, gray clouds. Jeremy looked at the expanse of white before them and the thin blades attached to his feet as he tried to listen to Lucas describe the process of cross-country skiing. Behind the part of his mind that wanted to listen to Lucas was a noisier part that was telling him that he could never do this.
“… See, it’s really just like walking. Hey, are you listening?”
“Sure. Just like walking.”
“I’ll make the ruts, and you just keep your skis in them. If you get tired, we’ll rest, and we’ll only go a little ways today.”
The boys were on dry, powdery snow, on a gentle downhill slope to the west of the farmhouse. There had been enough snow that year that only the upper third of the fencing marking the borders of the fields was visible. Lucas looked to be sure that Jeremy’s feet were in the bindings properly before stepping out slowly, beginning to make thin parallel tracks in the fresh snow. After a few sliding steps, he looked back to see that Jeremy hadn’t started. Finally, as Lucas waited, Jeremy put his skis in the tracks and began to try to follow Lucas.
Just like walking, Jeremy reminded himself. Getting the rhythm of his legs and upper body right took a while, but he surprised himself by feeling confident after a couple of hundred feet.
Then, with a suddenness that shocked him, Jeremy felt his legs tremble and give way as he fell to the side. On his way to the ground, he called out to Lucas; he couldn’t will his leg muscles to do anything. When he heard Jeremy’s cry, Lucas undid his skis’ bindings and slogged through the snow to Jeremy’s side.
Jeremy couldn’t even sit up. Times like these were the ones when Jeremy wanted to get it over with and die. He wondered what value just hanging on was. He felt as much as heard the dull thump of Lucas’s body plopping into the snow behind him. His friend’s arms wrapped him and pulled him into a sitting position with his chin resting on Jeremy’s right shoulder. Before he could cry, Jeremy heard the laughter.
Interrupting the laughter, the question, “Isn’t this the best shit ever?”, was followed by more laughter, and then Jeremy was laughing, too, instead of crying. He felt content in his friend’s arms.
Not wanting the embrace to end, Lucas said, “Let’s rest a bit and then go in. We’ll try again tomorrow if you want.”
* * * * *
From the window at the south side of the house, Vee had been watching the boys. When she saw Jeremy fall, she had almost run out to tend to him but decided to see how Lucas would deal with the situation. When she saw the boys laughing, she was thankful that she had asked her nephew to make the trip. When she had let Lucas cajole Jeremy into learning how to ski, she had thought that Jeremy’s legs, long without any real exercise, might give out in just the way they apparently had. Instead of gradual fatigue, the muscles’ depletion of glycogen stores had produced sudden failure. The failure was self-correcting, and once the boys were inside, rest and carbohydrates would restore Jeremy.
When the front door opened fifteen minutes later, Vee beheld her nephew giving Jeremy, whose legs were still wobbly, a sort of piggyback ride. Jeremy’s arms were around her nephew’s neck, with his legs dragging until they cleared the doorway. The boys crashed on the sofa in the living room. She had the ingredients for hot chocolate ready for them and prepared a couple of mugs for the boys. While they drank and ate shortbread cookies, she thought about how she would broach the subject of adoption with Jeremy. Enough time for that later.
“Ran out of steam, huh?”
Jeremy took a sip of hot chocolate before replying, “Yeah. It was weird; I didn’t feel tired at all until all of a sudden my legs wouldn’t work. Hope I didn’t screw anything up permanently.”
“No. You’ll be fine in few hours. You haven’t had much exercise lately, and your muscles just ran out of fuel. I hope you had fun.”
“It was the best shit ever,” Jeremy said and then smiled at Lucas.
“Damn right,” Lucas said.
“You guys are in charge of lunch. I have some work to do in the office.” Then, looking at Jeremy, Vee said, “No more skiing today.”
As she went into the office, she saw the boys chatting and finishing their snack. The rest of the late morning disappeared as she read journal articles, wrote referee comments on an article submission, and confirmed that the HDI was on its way from France. The sound of the front door banging open startled her, and she heard Lucas yell, “Uncle Sam!” Oh shit, the other hellion, she thought.
She left the office to find Lucas hugging his uncle. “Uncle Sam, this is Jeremy.” Jeremy started to get to his feet, but his legs weren’t yet fully cooperating.
“Don’t get up, Jeremy. I’m happy to know you.” Sam crossed to the sofa and shook the boy’s hand. Then, he noticed Vee in the doorway to the office. “Hey, Cuz. I’m here to help.”
She shot him a look that made clear that he shouldn’t talk about the kind of help they had discussed and, shaking her head, walked over to hug him. “You could have given me some warning.” Then she thought of how her remark must have sounded and added, “I’m glad to see you, but we could have talked on the phone.”
“Nope. Besides, we haven’t seen each other in a while, and I had time.”
Turning to the boys, Vee asked, “You guys have lunch under control? I want to talk to Sam for a few minutes.”
“Sure. We’ll leave the food out so you can eat later,” Lucas replied.
Jeremy watched the two adults walk back into the office before turning to Lucas. “That’s the only person I’ve ever met who’s been on YouTube.”
“Not true. I’ve been on YouTube.”
“No shit? That I have to see.”
“Well, really you have to look hard because I’m on the stage with Uncle Sam and the band at one of the concerts in L.A.”
“What’s your uncle do when he’s not playing guitar?”
“Lawyer. The whole family’s basically docs or lawyers — well, only one lawyer.” He anticipated Jeremy’s question. “Oh no, I’m not cut out for medicine. I think I’ll try what my great-grandfather did: write – but not novels.”
“You’ll have to tell me a bedtime story tonight, even so.”
* * * * *
When Vee and her cousin were seated in the office, neither engaged in pleasantries. “Okay, talk me out of it.”
Sam shook his head slowly, smiling, and then tried. “First, give me a dollar.”
She pulled her wallet out of her bag and handed him a dollar. “Now, I’m your lawyer. I’ll give you a receipt later.”
He knew that making arguments would be useless, so he began to ask questions. “Are his foster fathers abusing him?”
“No, not actively. But, they’re not giving him the support that he needs. They’re treating him as if his disease makes him defective.”
“Is Jeremy deprived in terms of house and home?”
“No. He has everything he needs physically.”
“Are they planning to adopt him?”
“They were, I think, but now they’re waiting for him to die.”
“Is their behavior threatening Jeremy’s well-being?”
“Jeremy is worried about their drinking. Other than that, I don’t think so.”
“How long has Jeremy been with them?”
“Has he complained to you about how they treat him?”
“He’s actually protective of them. But, he feels as if their problems are his fault — because he’s sick.”
Sam took a deep breath and brushed his hair away from his eyes in the same way his fathers often had. “Have you talked to Jeremy about this?”
“No, but I intend to.” Now she paused and watched Sam thinking before continuing, “Jeremy needs a parent, not a couple of landlords who are having second thoughts. He needs to know that he has someone who loves him no matter how long he’ll live and who isn’t using him as a form of couples therapy.”
“And you’re not using him in the same way?”
“For one thing, I’m not a couple. For another, I’m self-aware enough to know when I’m putting my needs ahead of his, and I’m not. You know me well enough to believe that. Wait — you don’t think I can do this, do you?”
“Of all of us, Cousin, you can do anything you put your mind to. You’re more like my Other Dad than any of us. You need to find out how Jeremy feels about this, and assuming he wants you for a mother, you need to talk with his foster fathers. If Jeremy wants you to adopt him, I’ll do whatever I can for you both. He’ll be a lucky kid if it works out.”
The talk wound down into conversation about how family members were doing, including Sam’s surviving dad, Jerry. Finally, Sam asked, “You know what you’re doing putting Lucas and Jeremy together, right?”
“Jeremy needs a friend his own age to talk to.”
“Well, he could do worse than Luke, but our nephew’s a wild child.”
* * * * *
When Vee and Sam finally emerged from the office long after Jeremy and Lucas had finished lunch, Lucas pointed at the kitchen. “I finally put the lunch stuff away.”
“Thanks,” Vee said to Lucas and then turned to Jeremy, “After Sam and I get a bite, I’d like to talk with you.”
Jeremy seemed perplexed by the request. “Okay.” The response was quiet, hesitant.
After a brief and hurried lunch, Sam herded his Other Dad’s namesake into the kitchen while Vee took Jeremy into her office. Lucas didn’t like not knowing what was going on. “What’s up?”
“Your aunt wants to talk with Jeremy privately.”
“Is he all right? I mean I know he’s not, but he’s not worse?”
“I don’t think so. She just needs to float something by him.”
Lucas frowned, watching the office door close. Inside, Jeremy was clearly anxious; his heart rate was up as was his breathing rate. Vee tried to reassure him. “Jeremy, nothing’s wrong; I just need to talk with you.”
The boy sat in the chair beside Vee’s desk and chewed his lower lip.
Vee knew no way other than to get to the point. “I hope you know that you’re more than a patient to me. I feel …” Now she had trouble with the words, and she worried that they would seem inappropriate to the boy. “… you’re like a son to me, and I want to adopt you.” The last part of the sentence came out in a rush. Then she thought that she hadn’t said the most important thing. Looking him in the eye, she said, “I love you, young man.”
Tears welled in the boy’s eyes, and he began to shiver. Vee quickly moved to kneel in front of him, her hands reaching up to his shoulders. “Well, that’s not the reaction I hoped for. If you don’t want me to try to do this, we can go back to the way it’s been. No harm, no foul.”
Jeremy wiped his forearm across his yes. “You love me?”
Simple, unhesitating: “Yes, Jeremy, I do.”
She could not know that he could not remember ever hearing those words. He certainly had not heard them from his foster parents, who, though not deliberately unkind, had never simply, unhesitatingly, told him that they loved him. He was smiling now, and the tears had stopped. She understood that her suggestion was welcome. Then, his expression clouded, and he seemed to deflate.
“What about Owen and Jens? Are they okay with this?”
Vee rose and sat back in her chair. “I don’t know. I haven’t talked to them yet. First, I needed to see how you felt.”
“They’ll never let you do it,” Jeremy said sullenly, “and I don’t want to screw things up for them any more than I have.”
“Believe it or not, you have a lot to say about the decision. It’s your life, and you’re not a young child. Maybe it won’t be easy, but I want to try. My cousin, Sam, is going to help us. He’s a very smart guy.”
Jeremy smiled at her, but she sensed that the smile covered a great many doubts. The boy stood and hugged her. “Would I get to call you Mom?”
Now she saw the playfulness that she loved return. “Yeah, you could, if you really want to. Think about it, and let me know when you’re sure.”
* * * * *
The next morning after breakfast, Lucas and Jeremy were sitting side by side on the porch before trying a short run of cross-country skiing again. Luke could see that Jeremy was preoccupied, as he had been during breakfast. He laid his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “What’s bothering you?”
Jeremy hesitated only a moment, deciding to trust his friend, “You can’t tell your aunt I told you.” Then he took an obvious deep breath. “She wants to adopt me…”
Lucas interrupted, “Yes! We’ll be cousins.” He put his arm around Jeremy, giving him a sideways hug.
Jeremy was at first surprised at Lucas’s enthusiasm and after a few seconds not surprised. He smiled and continued, “She said I could call her Mom.” That brought a smile to Lucas, and as he listened to his friend, thoughts about how short Jeremy’s life might be crowded out his delight. “The thing is, I don’t know what Owen and Jens are going to do. They’ve taken care of me, and I kind of think they need me.”
“What do you want?” Lucas asked softly.
Without hesitation, Jeremy said, “I’d be so happy if Vee adopted me.” Then he added in a flat voice, “But I can’t hurt Owen and Jens. They’ve taken care of me, even when I got sick, and it’s been hard on them. It wouldn’t be right if they don’t want me to live with Vee. I’ve put them through a lot of grief.”
“That’s pathetic bullshit. I’ve never been as sick as you are, but my parents have never made me feel like I owe them something for taking care of me. That’s what parents do for kids — or should do. You know, Uncle Sam was shot by some homophobic asshole when he was our age, and no one in the family thought caring for him was a bother. People who love you help you because it’s natural; they don’t keep score.”
“Vee told me she loves me.”
“Well, that’s two of us, then.” The words were out before Lucas could stop them. Luke couldn’t read his friend’s expression and tried to repair any damage he might have done. “Wait. Don’t freak. I’m not hitting on you. I just mean that I love you like a friend.” Now he thought Jeremy’s face betrayed almost disappointment.
“No, I know what you meant. You’re my best friend.” This time the declaration didn’t sound pitiable.
“Anyway, I think you should do what’s best for you and not worry about what’s best for your foster fathers.” Lucas had already decided that he didn’t like Jeremy’s foster parents even though he hadn’t met them.
“I guess. I just don’t know. Let’s ski.”
“Let’s go into town instead.”
“Does Vee have time to drive us?”
Lucas held up the keys to the Volvo. “We won’t bother her.” He leaned the long, thin skis against the wall and grabbed Jeremy’s hand, pulling him down the porch steps to the car. He opened the driver’s door and began to take a seat behind the wheel. He saw Jeremy hesitate and said, “Don’t worry; it’ll be fine. Get in. We’ll just go to Ayutla.”
Jeremy finally shrugged and sat in the front passenger seat. When they were buckled up, Lucas carefully started the Volvo and drove out the long drive toward US-97. Rodrigo, one of the foremen on the farm, had, with his father’s permission, taught him how to drive over the previous two summers, but he wasn’t yet old enough for an instructional permit. He was, however, confident in his abilities, and Goldendale didn’t exactly have major traffic congestion. No one had actually told him not to drive off the farmland.
Lucas got them to the highway via Collins Drive and Dingmon Road. Dingmon formed an intersection with US-97, with Simcoe Drive leading into the small city directly across US-97. Lucas waited carefully before crossing the highway and pulling into Ayutla’s parking lot. After stopping, he realized that Jeremy had been watching him carefully while he attended to driving.
The boys sat in the restaurant, and Lucas discussed the menu with Jeremy, asking him if there was anything he wouldn’t eat. No tongue or tripe, thank you. After a few minutes, the waiter appeared and greeted Lucas as a long-lost friend. A short exchange in Spanish between Lucas and the waiter settled the choice, although Jeremy didn’t get a chance to participate. After the waiter walked away, Jeremy asked, “What am I having?”
“Oh, sorry. We’re both having Chiles Rellenos. You’ll like them — promise.”
Jeremy smiled as he realized that he hadn’t thought about being sick since they had left the porch. He realized that they shouldn’t have taken the car, but he was plainly happy to be out on an adventure, and one outside the boundaries, not one defined by the cancer.
Lucas seemed so confident — the same sort of confidence that he saw in Vee. Maybe, if he could find a way to relax, he would feel that kind of boldness; he would love that. Then, thinking about what Luke had said on the porch, he realized that he hadn’t been able to relax in a long while because living with his foster fathers always made him anxious – anxious about how what he was doing and feeling was affecting Owen and Jens. At that moment he made a decision. He smiled at Lucas.
“You’re right. Thanks. I have to try to do what’s best for me.”
Lucas nodded. “Hell, yeah.”
After they finished their lunch, for which Lucas insisted on paying, they walked out to the car. As they pulled out of the lot, Lucas asked, “How ‘bout some baklava?”
“St. John, at the bakery.”
“Are you sure this is okay with Vee?”
“She’s never told me not to.”
Jeremy swallowed his protest as they wheeled away from the restaurant and turned left onto the highway. The drive to the bakery was less than ten minutes, ending in an otherwise empty parking lot. Before they went in, Lucas fished around in his jacket pocket and brought out two large, brightly enameled rainbow-flag pins. Handing one to Jeremy, Lucas said, “Wear this.” As they both attached the pins to their jackets, Lucas continued, “Every time I come here, I hope my flag drives them crazy.” Then, after smiling, he added, “Vee gave them to me and suggested that we wear them. We call them our bakery flags.”
As they decamped to the store, Jeremy asked, “She’s not too fond of the Church, is she?”
“Oh, no. Don’t ever get her started on religion.”
When they walked into the bakery, the woman at the counter looked at them carefully, and Jeremy wondered if they had succeeded in offending her. Finally her face relaxed and she asked, pointing at Lucas, “You’re an Underhill, right?” Lucas nodded. “What can I get for you gentlemen?”
They bought two squares of baklava and took them outside. Leaning against the car, they ate the sticky treat, finally licking their fingers clean of the honey, which caused Jeremy to blush while Lucas laughed, before wiping them on napkins. Thinking that he had pushed the adventure as far as he should, Lucas told Jeremy, “Let’s head back, or Aunt Vee will begin to worry.” Belted in the Volvo, Lucas pulled onto the highway again — this time southbound. Half a mile down the road, Jeremy heard the call of a siren, and Lucas saw the blue lights of the sheriff’s cruiser pulling up behind him. Shit! He pulled to the shoulder of the road and turned off the engine. Jeremy was looking at him as if they were about to be thrown in jail.
The deputy walked up to Lucas’s door and peered at him. “License and registration, please.”
Lucas was trying to figure a way out. Finally he decided that he had no choice but to tell the truth. “I don’t exactly have a license, but I think the registration is in the glove box.”
The deputy stood away from the door and put his hand on the grip of his pistol. “Driver, get out of the car. Passenger, stay where you are.”
When Lucas had obeyed the order, the deputy told him to wait at the rear of the car; after taking the keys from the ignition, he walked around the front of the car to Jeremy’s door. “Passenger, get out of the car and wait with your friend.” Jeremy thought he saw a slight smile on the cop’s face. Jeremy obeyed, and the deputy opened the glove box and secured the vehicle registration before walking back to the two boys. “I take it that you are not Annie-Violet Underhill.”
Lucas looked sheepishly at Jeremy. “No, sir. I’m her nephew.”
“Do you have any ID on you?”
Lucas reached for his wallet and pulled out his student ID. The deputy took it, looking it over carefully before turning to Jeremy. “You?” Jeremy gave the deputy his school ID, which received the same examination. “Over to my car,” the deputy finally said and led the boys to his cruiser. He opened the back door and asked Lucas, “Do I need to cuff you before I put you in the car, or will you behave?”
The deputy put both boys in the back seat of his car and locked the Volvo up before climbing into the cruiser’s front seat. He tapped some keys on his data terminal and waited for the response before turning the warning lights off and pulling onto the highway.
Lucas felt worse than he could ever remember feeling, mostly because he knew that Jeremy was frightened. As they made their way to the sheriff’s office, Lucas reached his hand toward Jeremy’s until he touched his friend’s hand. Jeremy looked at him as if he would cry at any moment, and Lucas squeezed his hand. “It’s my fault, and I’ll be sure they know you didn’t have anything to do with it. It’ll be okay; I promise.”
“I know. I’m worried about you.”
When they reached the office, the deputy pulled around to the back of the building, parked, and took the boys into the building. In the hallway, he stopped them and said, “You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to an attorney. If you want an attorney and cannot afford one, one will be appointed for you. Do you understand these rights?”
Lucas answered for both of them, “Yes, sir.” Now he began to wonder if he was going to be locked up.
The deputy opened the door to a small room off the hallway and indicated that the boys should go in. Jeremy went first and stopped so suddenly that Lucas ran into his back. Then Lucas saw his aunt and uncle sitting at a small table. Vee didn’t look happy, and Sam was trying not to chuckle. Vee almost shouted, “What the hell were you thinking?”
Lucas shifted his weight a bit from foot to foot. Finally he looked at his aunt. “Jeremy had nothing to do with this. He thought you knew. I just wanted to take him for a drive — just the two of us. I wanted him to have some fun. I’m sorry. Hey, how did you know where we were?”
Vee shook her head. “You’re not much of a criminal mastermind. When I saw the car was missing, among other places I called was the restaurant. I then called Mike and asked him to keep an eye out for you on the highway. I didn’t figure you’d go to St. John, but Mike found you. You do realize you’re getting a ticket for driving without a license, which you’ll have to pay out of your own money. You’re lucky you didn’t hurt anyone.”
The deputy, Mike, added, “You’re lucky I’m not getting you for car theft, but the owner won’t press charges. You’re also lucky that I know your parents and your family. What you did is stupid, and I won’t treat you any differently than I would any other kid who did what you did.”
Lucas knew that was a stretch. Jeremy, who had been quiet and who now feared that Vee might retract her offer to adopt him, finally said, “It’s my fault, too. I could have told him not to take the car. I’m as much to blame as Luke is.”
Vee looked hard at Jeremy. “Just like cousins to take up for one another.” Both of the boys grinned at the comment until Sam cleared his throat.
“Thanks, deputy. If it’s okay, I’ll sign the citation for my nephew, and we’ll get it taken care of.”
* * * * *
Vee and Sam were in her office after sending the boys up to their rooms. The irony of the phrase, “Go to your rooms,” had not been lost on Vee, who realized she was acting as a parent would. She had always known that Lucas was a handful, but he had never done anything like this when he was with her. She alternated between anger and admiration, silently fuming, until Sam ventured, “OD drove when he was Lucas’s age. He’s heard that story a million times.” He saw Vee starting to object and hastily added, “I know he shouldn’t have; I’m just saying that he wasn’t out to hurt anybody. I think he wanted Jeremy to have a lark.”
“Is this what I have to look forward to?”
“They’re kids, so yeah, I think so. Immature frontal lobes, you know?” Sam saw the frown. “I forgot. You were born with mature frontal lobes.”
Vee seemed almost hurt. “I had to learn to protect myself from my brother and two cousins. I can understand the adolescent brain, thank you.”
“I know; I know. That’s my point: you’ll do fine mothering a teenager.”
“People think I don’t have a sense of humor.”
“Ask Lucas. You have the best sense of humor of any of us. All we hear about is how funny you are — not ha-ha funny, but the kind of funny that teenagers get — honest, sarcastic funny.”
“I wonder if this episode has convinced him that living with me is a bad idea.”
“You’d better talk to him, but I think he understands that parents have to set limits.”
* * * * *
Lying on the twin beds in Jeremy’s bedroom, the boys were silent for a few minutes. Lucas wanted to find out if Jeremy was all right physically and how badly the result of the prank had frightened his friend. Jeremy wanted to tell Luke that he had felt excellent during their little journey — just being a kid and not feeling like a sick kid. He also wanted to ask Lucas if he thought that Vee might have changed her mind about adopting him because of the episode. He didn’t have much hope that she could pull it off, but he had decided to ask her to try. He’d never before seen her angry, and he wanted to please her.
“Do you think she’s super-mad at me?”
“No! She’s super-mad at me. I kidnapped you; she knows that.”
“You didn’t kidnap me. I went because I knew we’d have fun, and I did. I’m not letting you take the blame for me.”
Lucas sat up and looked over at his friend. “You heard what she said: we’re like cousins. I’m telling you that if she was pissed at you, she wouldn’t have said that, and she wouldn’t have said it if she’d changed her mind. The only real question in this mess is when I’m going to get shipped home.”
“I hope not before we go back to Portland.”
“Maybe if I beg hard enough, she’ll let me stay. My dad, though, might yank me back to Seattle when he finds out. I don’t think she’ll rat me out right away, but she’s going to have to sooner or later, or Uncle Sam will.” After a moment, he added, “I hope getting hauled in didn’t frighten you too much. You feel okay? Physically, I mean?”
“I’m not going to tip over any minute. I wasn’t afraid for me; I was a little scared about what Vee would do.”
“I think she does love you. Our family’s very big on love.”
“Yeah, you’re lucky.”
* * * * *
After an hour holed up in Jeremy’s room wondering when the roof would fall, Lucas’s Uncle Sam stuck his head in the door. “Guys, you doing all right?” The boys nodded, and Sam told Lucas, “Your aunt requests your presence in the office.”
As his uncle left the room, Lucas tried to reassure Jeremy. “Try not to worry. My family doesn’t use the firing squad.” Jeremy gave a slight smile as Lucas trudged down the stairs to meet his aunt in her office. His uncle had waited in the hallway while he descended; Lucas wondered why he had remained. Vee was typing intently when he crossed the threshold and quietly sat in the chair next to the wall behind her. He wasn’t in a hurry for this inquisition to start. After finishing a paragraph, she turned her desk chair toward him.
“Even at your wildest, you don’t usually behave like an idiot or put others at risk. What possessed you?”
He started to explain, but her face hardened, and he waited. “Who’s responsible for Jeremy while he’s out here?”
“No, we aren’t. I am. Well, we both are, but legally I’m the one who’ll be in the defendant’s chair if anything happens to that boy through negligence. You put me and him at risk. And, for what?”
“I’m sorry; I didn’t think of it that way. He’s going to be my cousin, right?” He thought he’d better get this matter settled right away.
“If we can manage it — yes. What’s that have to do with your little escapade?”
Lucas would usually calculate a reply – finding the best way to spin his story. With Vee he never did. “I just needed to be sure that you haven’t changed your mind. He’s tired, and he’s scared. You know what it’s like for him with those men? It’s like he needs someone to want him even with the disease, but he also wants to forget the cancer and just have some fun. So, we did.”
Vee started to speak, but Lucas spoke over her, “None of this was his idea. You shouldn’t be angry with him.”
“Jeremy’s not your little brother, and he’s not a fool. He has some responsibility for this, but I grant that you’re the author of this little disaster. He doesn’t get a pass because he’s sick.” Then Vee seemed to relax. “You’re both boys, I get that, but if we can’t trust each other, we’ll never get along. You know what I mean?”
Now Lucas frowned. The thought that his escapade meant that his aunt couldn’t trust him was painful. He looked at her straight on. “I won’t do anything like that again. I promise.”
“The guy you are named for didn’t make promises lightly; you best not, either.”
“Did you tell Mom and Dad yet?”
“No. That’s your job – and sooner rather than later.”
“Okay,” Lucas said quietly, “I’ll call them.”
“You do that. I need to talk with your cousin-to-be. Lucas, you’re a remarkable kid, and I suppose that means that when you’re stupid, you’re remarkably stupid.” Then, she smiled. “You are so much like your Uncle Lucas was.”
* * * * *
After Lucas left the bedroom to talk with his aunt, Sam took his place on the empty twin bed. “Don’t worry. He’s right; we don’t practice capital punishment.”
“I’m as much to blame as Lucas.”
“I admire your loyalty, but no one is ever as much to blame as Lucas. Believe me.”
They sat silently for a few minutes before Jeremy said, “I want her to adopt me. I want to live with her for as long as I’ve got. Now, maybe she won’t want me.”
Sam smiled. “You know her. Do you think a little caper will change her mind about you?”
“No, it won’t”
“All right, then. You have to be very sure of what you want.”
“I know what I want; I’m just not sure I have enough time left to make it happen.”
“Okay. You want to die trying or wait and see?”
He answered without pause, “Die trying.”
“Then, we’ll try.”
“What do I have to do?”
“You need to be clear with your foster fathers that you want to be Vee’s son and that you don’t care if you die trying.”
“What if I don’t make it?” To Sam, the boy looked unutterably sad.
“I’m lucky; I had fathers. When I was worrying about one of mine dying of AIDS, he asked me if I should waste my time worrying about all the things that might happen, or if I should dive into what was happening?”
Sam left the bed and sat on the other one where Jeremy lay and took the boy’s hand. “I got the answer right. You’re coming into a family with a lot of fathers to share.” The boy nodded, realizing that for the last few days he hadn’t thought very much about death.
After a bit more conversation, Lucas came bounding upstairs and into the room. “She wants to talk with you now. See? I survived,” he declared, arching his eyebrows.
* * * * *
Jeremy hesitated at the office door until Vee called out, “Jeremy, come on in and sit down.” She was standing as he entered the room and held her arms out to hug him before he sat. The gesture was all it took to tell him that the place in the world he hoped for was still possible.
“I’m sorry we took the car…”
She waved her hand. “We’ve dealt with that, and I’m sure you wouldn’t let yourself be led into anything like it again. Have you decided about my offer?”
“Yes, but I knew taking the car was wrong, and I went along with Luke. I think he did it for me.”
She could see he wasn’t going to let this go and didn’t dwell on the happiness his answer was giving her. “I think I understand what you were feeling, and the reason I’m not being harder on Luke is that I understand why he suggested your adventure. If you’re asking if your illness gives you a pass for bad behavior, then no, it doesn’t.”
“Okay. I don’t want a mother who won’t give me shit when I deserve it or blames other people when I do stupid stuff.”
“Fair enough. Now, I hate to drag you back to the NMC, but I’m getting a new generation HDI, and I want us to try it.” Jeremy groaned and bowed his head. “Remember how few side effects the last one we used had; it’s not like chemo.”
“It gave me the squirts.”
“Only for a few days, and it really helped.”
“Oh, all right,” the boy said without any enthusiasm. “You’ll get Owen and Jens to okay it?”
She noticed that he hadn’t said, ‘my fathers’ or, ‘my foster fathers’. “I will. Are you sure you’re up for this whole change of parents thing? If we try this, I want you to do it because you want to do it and not because anyone else does.”
“If I’m going to live forever, I want it to be with you, not them.”
* * * * *
On Thursday, they had a modest Thanksgiving dinner during which Jeremy only once briefly wondered what Jens and Owen were doing. He mused that they were probably not giving him even that much thought.
That night before Jeremy and Vee were to return to Portland and Lucas and Sam to Seattle, Jeremy asked Lucas if he would spend the night in his room. At first, Lucas was hesitant because he still desired Jeremy and didn’t want to torture himself or do something stupid, but he recognized Jeremy’s need to talk with someone his own age. He agreed. After all, they’d be in separate beds.
When they got cleaned up, they settled in the twin beds, wearing only boxers, and were silent for a few minutes. Lucas, who for the first time saw the long, vertical scar over Jeremy’s breastbone, had an uncharacteristic confusion about how to begin a conversation. Jeremy finally asked in a small voice, “Did you tell your father?”
“Yeah. He was more than a little pissed. I knew I’d have to pay for the ticket, but I think I’m going to become slave labor for a while.” Then, he thought that Jeremy might be feeling guilty. “I’d do it again, you know?”
“I had a great time. Thanks. I could split the cost of the ticket with you.”
“That’s nice, but no. I can do it, and you need to concentrate on getting a new mother.”
Jeremy noticed Lucas trying not to stare at his chest. “Pretty gross, huh? It’s your father’s handiwork.”
“Vee sent me up to Harborview in Seattle, and he operated on me when they thought they might get it all. She said she wouldn’t trust anyone else. You didn’t know?”
“No, he never talks about his cases. Your scar isn’t gross. You’re beautiful.” Then Lucas blushed as he heard a deep sigh from his friend.
“It’ll work out. You’ll see. Then, we’ll be official cousins.” He almost made a joke about incest but stopped himself.
“I’m not scared about trying to be adopted.”
“What’s scaring you?”
Jeremy took a while to be able to say what he’d only said to Vee before. “Dying.”
“Oh. I …”
“I know. You don’t have to say anything. I’m not afraid because I’ll probably die. I’ve seen other kids go through it. I just don’t know what it will be like. Not knowing is what scares me.”
Lucas felt a fullness in his chest and throat and realized that he was almost crying. He stifled the tears. “I never think about dying. OD – Other Dad – did, I think. At least Uncle Sam says he did, but he was weird. I guess he was more curious than scared. I didn’t ever get to see him, but I’m named after him.”
“I’m not curious. I don’t want to know what it’s like; I’m just scared.”
Lucas thought that Jeremy might need a hug. “You want to come over and climb in with me?” He regretted the question as soon as it was out. Then he heard Jeremy leave his bed and pad over. He lifted the covers so that Jeremy could climb in, which he did with his pillow, settling on his side so that his back was to Lucas who had scooted over against the wall with his front now to Jeremy’s back. Lucas put his arm over Jeremy’s shoulder and chest and gently hugged him. The boy stiffened slightly, and at first, Lucas thought he was reacting to the contact but then asked, “Pain?”
He lightened the pressure on Jeremy’s chest and felt the boy’s struggle not to cry, a struggle that he lost, and for a while Lucas held his crying friend. When he was cried out, Jeremy slept, and finally Lucas did as well until the morning, when Uncle Sam knocked on the door. Both of the boys started into consciousness, and Lucas was immediately aware of his hard-on resting against Jeremy’s butt. He was already almost against the wall and had no way to retreat any farther. He wiggled onto his back. “Sorry about that.”
“I knew you weren’t trying to molest me.” Then Jeremy giggled before becoming serious. “Thanks for last night. I’m still scared, but I feel better.”
They both checked the hallway before going to the bathroom to take turns peeing, showering, flossing and brushing and then went back to their separate bedrooms to pack and get dressed. Finally, they lugged their bags downstairs where the adults were closing up the house. Vee noted that Jeremy was somber, as if he was returning to the last battle. She and Sam hugged both boys before they left the house.
The doors remained unlocked because Rodrigo and the hands would be taking care of the place, and in Goldendale burglary wasn’t a big issue. Out on the driveway, Jeremy was trying to figure out how to say goodbye to Lucas. He knew that Lucas found him attractive, and he almost wished that he could return the feeling. Remembering the night of being held in bed, he stood close to Lucas and whispered, “Straight guys can still kiss gay guys.”
Lucas quickly kissed his friend on the cheek and said with a sigh, “Yeah. That goes both ways. You better text me every day.”
Everyone boarded the cars and then drove toward US-97 and away from Goldendale.
As they headed north up the highway to connect with I-90, Sam looked at his nephew seated beside him. Outside, the sky was a dull gray, and the vegetation on either side of the highway was brownish and dormant. Even in the warm car Lucas felt as if he should be shivering.
Sam noticed that Lucas had a puzzled, dissatisfied look on his face. “Did you fall in love?”
The question from his uncle seemed quite natural to Lucas. “No! Maybe. I don’t know. He’s straight, anyway.”
Sam put his hand lightly on Lucas’s knee. “Still hurts a bit, though.”
“A little. I hope I get to see him again.” After a brief pause, Lucas added, “I’m so fucking lucky.”
Sam knew just how his nephew felt.
* * * * *
Vee and Lucas were back in Portland by one o’clock. He hadn’t spoken to the foster parents in the whole of his trip, but then they hadn’t tried to contact him, either. He wasn’t particularly anxious to see them, and he wasn’t afraid of what they might say or do about that. The fact that he had already shifted his identity from being their child to being Vee’s dawned on him.
Parked in front of Jeremy’s home, Vee said, “I think it would be better to wait for me to mention the adoption business to Owen and Jens. I don’t want you to get in the line of fire.”
“When will you talk to them?”
“I’ll be seeing you on Monday. I want to do another MRI and I hope the new drug is here so that you can start it. I’ll figure out a way to talk with them when they bring you in.”
“I’ll try to stay quiet, but I’m not promising.”
They walked up to the house. Jeremy rang the bell while Vee waited by his side. After a few moments, Jens opened the door. Instead of hugging the boy or helping with his bag, the man turned back into the house without saying a word. Looking at Vee, Jeremy shrugged and took his bag inside. As the boy started to close the door, Jens shouted, “Thanks, Dr. Underhill.”
Jens smiled at Jeremy. “Have a good time?”
“Yeah. Great. My friend Lucas was there, and we went skiing…” Jeremy looked at Jens’s back as he retreated into the kitchen. When he had no other option than to stay with his foster fathers, he had suppressed his occasional anger — anger that was a twin to his sense of guilt. Before, the guilt was prevalent; now the anger was. He sighed and went to his room to unpack and to text Lucas. He composed the text and then deleted it because he though it too whiny.
He stayed in his room reading. The pain in his chest reminded him that the tumor was growing again, and he wondered if he’d have enough time for Vee to adopt him. Just before dinnertime, he went downstairs to the dining room. Owen and Jens were already at the table, serving themselves from the tureen on the center of the table containing some kind of stew. Jeremy had to admit that Jens could cook. He served himself, and they ate in silence, the men drinking what were obviously not their first glasses of wine. Finally he made a move.
“So, are you still thinking of adopting me?”
Owen almost choked, and the two men looked at each other as if they could formulate the right response without a discussion. Jeremy kept eating and waited. Finally, Owen said, “Well, I mean we don’t know how things are … going to … work out.”
“Oh, you mean I have an expiration date.”
Jens almost shouted, “Jeremy! Don’t talk to us like that.”
“You tell me. Don’t I deserve to try for adoption even if I die before it happens?” He was near tears, but he wasn’t going to let them see him cry. “If you don’t want to try, then let somebody else.”
Jens said, “Given the circumstances, I really don’t think anyone else is going to want to try.”
“Well, someone does, and I’d really appreciate it if you’d let her try.”
The men were both silent until Owen almost shouted, “The bitch. Doctor Underhill, right?”
Jeremy stood. “Don’t you ever call her that. At least she’s willing to try to let me have a mother, whether I die trying or not.” Then he threw his napkin on the table and ran up to his room, slamming the door behind him and locking it. Now he cried.
* * * * *
Before she had finished her supper, the phone rang. “Yes?”
“You can’t have him.”
“What? Is that you, Owen? What’s going on?”
“Jeremy just told us about your little plot. You can’t seriously think that we’ll let you do this to us.”
For a moment, Vee was angry. Why couldn’t he have waited until I had time to talk to these assholes? Then her anger turned to its proper recipient. She took a breath. “I can tell that Jeremy’s revelation has upset you.” Owen started to speak, but she interrupted. “This is something Jeremy and I talked about, and I intended to speak with you on Monday when we look at his MRI. But let me say that the discussion isn’t about what’s best for you two; it’s about what’s best for Jeremy. Now, I suggest that we talk about it on Monday. Goodbye.”
She ended the call and immediately called Sam. He and Lucas were just getting into Seattle. She explained what had happened. With the hands-free device in the car, Lucas heard everything. He shouted, “Those fucking assholes.”
Sam told him to be quiet for a minute. “Look, Vee, I’ll get the criminal home to Marsh and Terri, and then I’ll fly down tomorrow. You and I can meet the gentlemen on Monday.”
Vee said, “I don’t want to scare them with a lawyer.”
“I know their weakness; I’m not going to scare them. I’m going to reason with them. I might bring someone from Julie Steiner’s firm. You have to trust me on this, Vee.”
After considering the suggestion, Vee said, “All right, Sam. Do what you think’s best. I’ll see you tomorrow. Let me know if you need transportation.”
After the call ended, Lucas asked his uncle, “Julie Steiner?”
“She’s dead, but her firm goes on. She was the best family-law lawyer in the Northwest. She helped with my Other Dad’s adoption. The firm knows the system inside out, and knowing the system is important when you’re trying to solve a problem; so is knowing when to get help.”
* * * * *
First things first.
Vee looked carefully at the MRI on the monitor at her desk. Padraig was looking over her shoulder, shaking his head. Vee said, “Well, that’s not good news. We’ll start him on the HDI this afternoon. He’s going to be a sick cookie until it takes effect — if it takes effect.”
“Owen and Jens are waiting with Jeremy.”
Padraig left to usher the men and Jeremy into the consulting room adjacent to Vee’s office. When they were seated at a table across from a large-screen monitor, Owen started to vent his anger, but Vee held up her hand. “Let’s talk about the test results and the treatment plan first; then we can deal with the adoption problem.”
She switched the monitor on and the MRI appeared. Jens said, “Jeremy, could you wait outside?”
“I think Jeremy needs to see and hear this. I don’t hide this kind of information from patients Jeremy’s age.”
Jeremy chimed in, “I need to know, please.”
Owen and Jens frowned but didn’t insist that Jeremy leave the room. Vee continued, “We know that this tumor is difficult to manage. When the last HDI began to fail, the tumor did what these tumors do and began to grow again. Jeremy has felt better recently because we stopped chemo, which was basically ineffective, but I suspect he’s beginning to feel some pain as the tumor is growing.” She looked at Jeremy questioningly, and he nodded slightly. Then she reviewed the MRI, which showed the recurrent mediastinal lesions as well as a new one in the right lung.
“Jeremy’s done very well with this disease, but NMC doesn’t respond well to most treatments. We had good results from the second generation HDI, and we’ve just received the third generation. I think we should get Jeremy enrolled in a clinical trial and start immediately.”
The adults were silent because they thought she was pronouncing a death sentence. Jeremy broke the silence. “What are my chances with the new HDI?”
Vee didn’t usually have internal conflict about how much of the truth to tell patients, but Jeremy had become more than a patient. She brushed the conflict aside. “I don’t know. You may see a temporary improvement, but no one can know how long the relief will last.”
“If we don’t…?”
“The tumor is picking up speed. If we do nothing, the outcome is certain.”
Jeremy frowned and looked at his foster parents. “Let’s do it, then.”
Jens asked, “Are you sure you want to try this?”
Jeremy slowly shook his head. “If you were dying, wouldn’t you?”
Owen said, “Okay, okay. We’ll give permission.”
“I appreciate that, Owen, but the state of Oregon controls Jeremy’s participation. I’ve talked with Child Protective Services, and they’ve given permission if Jeremy wants to try, which it seems he does.” She didn’t want Owen to begin thinking and acting as if he were more than Jeremy’s foster parent.
“Jeremy, would you go with Padraig? He’ll go over the medication schedule, and I’ll talk to you before you leave.”
Jeremy knew what was coming, and although he wanted to stay, he knew she didn’t want him to. Padraig smiled at him and, with a wave of his arm, invited the boy to go to his office.
When the two had left the conference room, Vee said that she wanted a couple of other people to attend the next discussion. Without waiting for a response from the men, she asked Sam and Elspeth Martin, the family-law attorney, to join them and introduced them to Owen and Jens.
“You brought lawyers?” Owen asked.
“I brought my cousin and Ms. Martin to help me understand your point of view and your rights.”
That settled the men down a bit. Sam began to employ a tactic he had discussed with Vee. “I’m trying to get my cousin to look at things from your point of view. You’ve taken care of Jeremy for what — three years?” The men nodded. “When Jeremy was first placed, you intended to adopt him. Now, what with the cancer and all, you want to see if he lives before you put yourselves through the process.”
Owen responded for himself and Jens. “Exactly. If we go through with the adoption process now, it could be wasted time, effort, and expense.”
Vee almost came out of her chair, but Sam put his hand on her arm to restrain her. Elspeth responded to Owen. “Jeremy is still a ward of the state, and Oregon made the foster placement with you based on your assertion that you would adopt him, because the boy needs a permanent home with loving parents. All I’ve heard from you is concern about how Jeremy’s situation affects you. What about his needs? Because, I can assure you that Oregon is concerned with his needs, not how his presence in your home meets yours.”
Before Owen or Jens could respond, Sam continued. “What’s your take on what Jeremy wants?”
Owen was trying to figure out how to avoid a trap, but Jens wasn’t as careful. “Of course he wants to be adopted. He has no idea how difficult this situation has been for us.” Owen scowled at his husband.
Vee couldn’t keep silent any longer. “What kind of music does Jeremy like?”
Owen and Jens looked at one another for a moment, before Owen spoke. “Oh, you know, the usual teenage stuff: rap, and whatever else they listen to.”
“Do you know the names of any of his friends? What’s my nephew’s name — the one he just spent the week with?”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“His favorite music is bluegrass, and his best friend is Lucas. Do you ever listen to him? Is he frightened about what is happening to him?”
“We give him everything he needs. We brought him to you, didn’t we?”
“Have you ever told him that you love him? Do you love him?”
“Of course we love him. Look at the home we’ve given him. He’s not an easy kid to talk to.”
The whole conversation had ratcheted Vee up, and now the pawl was loosed. “You’ve lived with Jeremy for three years, and you know nothing about him. Do you ever listen to music with him or let him read to you? Do you ever talk about anything important to him? I’ve spent a lot less time with him than you have, and I know what music he likes, what he likes to read; I know what he fears, and I know I love him and want to be his mother. That’s what he wants, too. He spends a lot of time trying not to piss you both off. I just hope you’ll stop worrying about your pain long enough to lessen his.”
Neither Owen nor Jens had ever heard this kind of emotion from Vee. Her questions, however, seemed beside the point to them. They had gotten themselves into a situation they didn’t like but from which they saw no exit that didn’t injure them. Their silence after Vee’s interrogation provided Elspeth the chance to give them an exit.
“Look, sometimes placements work, and sometimes they don’t — for a lot of reasons. In this case the circumstances changed. No one’s blaming you, but now you have a chance to help Jeremy. I’m sure he appreciates all you’ve done for him, but what he needs now is something maybe you can’t give him, except by letting him go peacefully. I can assure you that he will go, one way or another. Show everyone how you’re willing to put your needs aside.”
The two men looked at one another for a few moments. Owen clearly wasn’t happy, and he was the dominant member of the couple. Jens surprised everyone by saying, “We’ll think about it and let you know by the end of the day.”
* * * * *
“Don’t you ever make a commitment like that again. They are not going to win.”
“Owen, I’m tired of your crap. You’re just not worth the effort anymore. Jeremy’s placement is dependent on our being a couple, and that’s over. I’m out of here. I’ll call CPS to let them know. Jeremy has the right idea: one’s own happiness is important.”
“I’m the best thing that’s ever happened to you.”
“Well, that’s not saying much, is it? I’m looking forward to improving that situation.”
Before Owen could reply, Jens was out the door.
* * * * *
Vee had officially turned Jeremy’s treatment over to one of her colleagues, but she was still the best-prepared physician to guide it. The boy, whom she thought of in every way as her son, was in the bathroom of their condo, seized with another bout of diarrhea. She patiently listened to his whining complaints about having to shit so much, reminding him that this common side effect would abate in a few days. She was worried about his weight loss, both from the disease and from the treatment. She religiously worked to keep him hydrated and kept him on the now-hated, low-fiber BRAT diet and never-ending bottles of PediaSure®. At least no nausea accompanied the enteric distress.
She sat with him on the couch, looking out the glass doors to the Willamette River and the east side of the city beyond. The clouds hid the volcanoes, and indeed, the gloomy weather seemed an apt analog for their life now. In an interlude in the cramping, he was lying beside her on his side, with his head on her lap. “I love you, J. I’m sorry this is so hard on you.”
He turned his head to look up at her. To him, she seemed the tallest person he had ever known. “Love you, too, Mom. I just hope the stuff is working.” She smiled at his use of that name.
“We’ll know in a week or two at most.”
Jeremy didn’t really think that he’d survive this relapse. Although he was whiny about his loose bowels, the pain, and the fatigue, he didn’t despair. He was with someone who loved him and showed her love in almost everything she did for him. All the pain and discomfort, the worry and uncertainty floated on a layer of happiness that wouldn’t let him sink into bitterness.
Most important, she listened to his fears and his anger at the unfairness of it all. Every day she was behaving more as a mother and less as a physician.
He talked to her about how she grew up and about her parents, her brother, and cousins. His email inbox was filled now with concerned notes and encouragement from her family, who all seemed to see him as one of them. He talked with the man who was, or officially would be, his grandfather, who told him stories of Vee’s childhood. He had a hard time imagining Vee as a child, and the stories suggested that she might never have been one. One new aunt, Jamie, a classical musician, wrote to him about how she met Vee and how Vee had treated her as a sister from the beginning.
Over the next couple of weeks, Jeremy found himself aware that the pain was diminishing. He went to school, talked to Lucas by phone or exchanged text messages, and wondered how Jens was doing. The switch in foster placements had gone smoothly after Jens had split with Owen. The adoption process had begun, and Jeremy dearly wanted to complete the process before he succumbed.
He still had no energy, but his chest didn’t scream at him all day, and he began to hope – despite his efforts not to. He’d been on this roller-coaster ride a long time, and another disappointment would be crushing. He talked with Vee, who was positive about the change. She and Jeremy would know in a couple of days.
Two days later, Vee was in the booth looking at the monitor as the MRI progressed. Jeremy wanted desperately to turn so he could see her expression, but he couldn’t ruin the scan. When the technician moved the table out of the machine and helped him out, Vee was waiting with an expression he would remember as long as he lived. Smiling didn’t begin to describe her countenance. She had tears in her eyes, and he knew that the HDI had worked. They hugged beside the MRI machine.
Waiting in her office for her day to end, Jeremy couldn’t bring himself to ask how long the inhibitor would continue to work. If it got him through the adoption, he would be happy. None of these drugs was a cure, he knew.
* * * * *
High-school graduation was bearing down on Lucas, and he had spent almost two years figuring out where he wanted to go to college and submitting all the applications. All the kids of his generation in the family were gathering for a week in Seattle before they graduated and moved on. Lucas was particularly interested in seeing his Aunt Vee. His parents – all four of them – and his uncles and Aunt Jamie were already at the sprawling house near the university. Jamie was the cellist in a concert scheduled on Saturday with Aberrantes, the string quartet with which she had been playing for almost three decades.
Lucas was going to the concert with his boyfriend and, he hoped, with his Aunt Vee and his best friend.
“Will you sit down? You’re driving everyone crazy, Luke.” Paul, his boyfriend, was smiling because he knew how anxious Lucas was to see his aunt. Lucas sat next to Paul and kissed him. “Sorry, it’s just that he’s a little bit of a miracle.”
“I know how much he means to you.” There was no rancor in the comment. Any conflict over Lucas’s relationship with Jeremy had long been settled. Besides, the boy was so straight.
A little after one, the Volvo appeared in front of the house, and Lucas ran out the door to wait on the porch. Behind his aunt, who never seemed to age, stood the tall, brown-haired boy who had turned into a real stud. Nothing of the emaciation from his disease remained. He held his mother’s hand as they walked up the walkway and steps. Paul and Lucas exchanged hugs with Vee and Jeremy. When Lucas and Jeremy hugged, Lucas whispered to him, “You’re a cancer superstar. You look great.”
Separating from Lucas, Jeremy replied, “I feel great. Paul and you both look good.”
“Where were you last week?”
“France. I guess I am a superstar. They’re trying to figure out why the damn thing disappeared.” He shook his head and seemed momentarily sad. “I’m the only one we know of, so I get poked, prodded, and leached a lot.”
Paul said to the other three on the porch, “Why don’t we go in? A bunch of people need to say hello, and we have to leave for the concert soon.”
At seven, all fifteen or so of the family were in the first few rows of the Taper Foundation Auditorium in Benaroya Hall. Lucas couldn’t wait for the program to begin because he knew about a special addition to it. After the curtain rose at eight, the first half of the concert began, consisting of the fourth and fifth string quartets by Bartòk. The fifth brought the audience to its feet just before the intermission.
During the intermission, Vee took Jeremy backstage to the green room. The players were gulping down water and keeping to themselves, but Jamie had time to ask Jeremy, “You liked?”
“Shit, yeah!” Then he looked at his mother who was laughing. Jeremy saw an older, balding man wearing glasses in the corner, holding a guitar. He was talking earnestly to Vee’s brother, who was holding a mandolin. One of the hall employees called a five-minute warning, and Vee and Jeremy made their ways back to the seats.
In a few minutes the curtain rose, and Jamie stood with a hand microphone. “A few of you may know that in addition to my cello work I play bass in a rock band, The Outliers.” A few screams from younger members of the audience interrupted her. “Okay. Then you know you should expect the unexpected. Before we resume the classical program, our first violinist, Ehud, and my cousin, Marshall, want to welcome a guest for a special number. A few years ago, our family welcomed a new member, Jeremy Underhill, my cousin Vee’s adopted son, a big bluegrass fan. So, to honor him, please welcome my Cousin Marshall and Tony Rice to the stage. This is for you, Jeremy.”
Rice and Marshall joined the violinist at center stage, where Rice made some opening remarks. “Bluegrass, especially Newgrass, has more young fans than you might expect, so I’m always happy to play for one of the best fans I know. Even though he’s a lot younger than I, Jeremy and I share the taking of long journeys. Just as Bill Monroe was surrounded and loved by his family when his Uncle Pendleton took him in, Jeremy is surrounded and loved by his family.”
Rice looked to Marshall and Ehud, tapping his foot until the sounds of the fiddle, the mandolin, Rice’s guitar, and the tight harmonies of Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen” filled the hall:
Oh, the people would come from far away
They’d dance all night till the break of day
When the caller hollered “do-si-do”
You knew Uncle Pen was ready to go
Late in the evening about sundown
High on the hill above the town
Uncle Pen played the fiddle, Lord how it would ring
You could hear it talk, you could hear it sing
After the song, while the audience responded, Vee leaned toward Jeremy and whispered, “I remember the first time you played that for me and what it means to you.”