November 07, 2016
Tess hung up the phone and fought against an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. She wasn’t willing to accept her inability to help, to do something. She had pulled it off four years ago, the last time Ellie was sick. She’d done the research and found just the right medical team to blow away the odds and usher Ellie into remission. But that same team had now told her friend, her dearest friend, that she would be lucky to get another six months—nothing much they could do. And in her desperation, Ellie had already decided that flying off to Ecuador to work with shamans, or medicine people, or whatever they were called might be her only chance at survival. How had she failed her friend so completely?
“Jonathan!” She yelled from her chair.
“At your service.” He appeared so fast, she sometimes wondered if he just stood outside her office waiting for her command.
“Cancel everything for this afternoon,” she said. “Tell Rafferty I’ll look at his data first thing tomorrow. Then I need you to call Parker and tell him to meet me at Il Fornaio at eight.”
Jonathan’s eyebrows went up at this.
“Jesus, Jonathan, it’s not a date.” He did have a point. “Make sure he knows that. But tell him it’s urgent.” She closed her laptop and grabbed her phone and keys off the desk.
“Um, can I give him any context for this extremely demanding, in-case-you-forgot-you-dumped-him request?” He tilted his head to the side with a mock smile. Jonathan loved to remind her that at forty-six, she couldn’t afford to break-up with guys he called ‘a dream and a half.’
She gave him a not now look and slung her bag over her shoulder. Halfway through the door she stopped.
“Oh, and just in case,” she said, “you better clear my calendar for the week after next. I might need to be out of the country.”
“Did an alien sneak past me somehow and possess you? You just told everyone at the staff meeting to prepare for a lock-in for the next month, and now you’re going, where exactly?”
The timing sucked, no doubt about it. Her company was on the line. The convergence of all this would crush most people, but she couldn’t afford to collapse. People were depending on her.
“It’s Ellie,” she said.
“Oh no.” All his puff deflated with just two words.
“Go home tonight and give Daniel an extra hug,” she said. “Life’s too damn short.”
She knew she was in trouble as soon as she saw Parker’s reflection in the mirror behind the bar. His hair had gotten a little longer, and he was wearing his trademark oxford tucked neatly into the same pair of jeans that had been left in a heap at the foot of her bed so many times. He didn’t try to contain his smile when he saw her. As he walked over, a pair of women at the maitre d’s podium followed him across the room with their eyes.
“Hello, stranger,” he said, and leaned in to kiss her on the cheek. “What’s wrong? Jonathan was pretty vague.”
Tess had handled Ellie’s news all day like a crisis manager in charge of contingency planning, but telling Parker was different. She clasped her hands together and tried to find the courage to speak.
“Please don’t tell me you’re getting married,” he said, with true alarm on his face.
She told him about Ellie, everything she knew about her condition, how she had called everyone she knew who worked in the field and the prognosis was definitely grim.
“God, you must be devastated,” he said. “I’m so glad you called.”
“Here’s the thing.” She took a sip of her drink. “I know your work is confidential, but I need you to tell me if any of your clients are working on any under-the-radar trials that might help her.”
“You called me for my research?” He leaned forward in his seat. “Listen, you know I would tell you in a minute if there was something on the horizon that could help Ellie, but how are you, Tess? How’ve you been? I’ve missed you.”
“So you don’t know of anything.”
“I’m sorry.” Parker put his hand on hers.
This was proving harder than she thought. He was looking right into her, and she knew he was trying to determine if the spark was still there between them or if she was only after information. She should have emailed him. She needed to stay focused on her purpose. This had to be about Ellie. She pulled her hand back.
“Joline wants to take her to Ecuador to see some medicine people or something. She’s got Ellie’s hopes up they can actually help. It’s crazy, Parker. Ellie’s going to die, and I can’t do one thing to help her.”
Parker understood this dynamic. Joline was Tess’s and Ellie’s other roommate at Stanford, and while Tess loved her, it was hard not to be exasperated by thirty years of introductions to the latest new-age solution for health and wellbeing. Ellie bought into it every time. It all drove Tess a little nuts.
“Maybe going to Ecuador isn’t such a bad idea,” he said.
“How would it possibly be a good idea?”
“Well, the research on the placebo effect I’ve studied is pretty clear that a patient’s chances of recovery are most highly correlated with their own belief about whether or not they will get well.” Tess loved hearing him talk research. “If Ellie believes going to Ecuador will help, maybe it will.”
“She wants me to go,” she said.
“Then maybe that’s the single most important thing you can do for her.”
Tess stabbed the lone olive in her glass and considered ordering another drink.
“Tess, let me drive you home. You must be running on fumes.”
She knew she wouldn’t resist inviting him in. As soon as they shut the door behind them, he unclasped the hair clip at the base of her neck, hitched her up to his hips and wrapped her legs around him. In the space between the front door and the bedroom, the year they had been apart dissolved like sugar in a boiling beaker. Gone.
The morning of her flight to Quito, Tess felt the warmth of Parker’s body next to her before she opened her eyes. Every morning since Ellie’s news, he’d been there. It had been a relief to dive back in without any questions, without rehashing old issues. There were already too many top priorities in her life right now without worrying about that.
She had to get moving. She’d have only a few hours at the office before heading to SFO. Forcing herself to open her eyes, she found Parker watching her.
“God, don’t do that,” she said. “What are you doing?”
“Can I drive you to the airport later?” he asked, brushing her hair off her face.
“That’s OK. The driver will pick me up at the office,” she said. “Shit, I still have to pack.”
She tried to swing her leg out of the bed, but his hand was on her thigh.
“Are you ready for this?” he asked.
“For jumping into Joline’s crazy healer world? What in God’s name would make you think I wasn’t ready?” she said.
“Ready to behave, I mean.”
Tess rolled her eyes.
“I told you,” he said. “Casting doubts won’t help Ellie. You have always been the one she can lean on. She’s going to need that from you more than ever.”
Tess felt a tear threatening to surface. She shut it back, under a long blink.
“I know,” she said.
“And when you need somewhere to lean, I’m here,” he said.
“Oh, I’ll be fine.”
“How can you possibly be fine, Tess? Your best friend is dying and your company is on the brink.”
“What choice do I have?” she said, feeling anger rise. What good would it do to sit around and whine about the shit-show her life was at the moment?
“No, you’re right. You’ve always been a force of nature, Tess. I get that. You’ve never needed help from anyone in your life.” He sat up on his side of the bed, his back to her.
“What did I say?” she said.
He put his jeans on and wandered around the room in search of his shirt.
“This doesn’t work for me if you don’t let me in,” he said. These last two weeks have been…it’s been amazing to be with you again. But I need more than that. I want to be needed. I need to know that I am the one you count on—”
“—I can’t do this right now,” Tess said. Could anyone give her a break?
“I know. But I couldn’t let you leave without telling you how I feel. I love you, Tess, like it or not. And I need to be loved back. Otherwise there’s no point.”
She wasn’t sure what she was supposed to say.
“You get packed. I’ll make you some breakfast,” he said, and left her clutching the edge of the cool white sheet.
As the plane banked toward Quito, the rising sun pushed a yolk of light across Tess’s screen, making her spreadsheet unreadable. She hadn’t slept. She still couldn’t believe she was actually headed to Ecuador. The idea that a group of people with no medical training could possibly help Ellie was ludicrous. But as hard as she’d tried, Tess had found no better option to offer. Not yet, anyway. After they got through their week of “healing ceremonies,” as Joline called them, Tess would continue her search for a new drug or new trial or new procedure that could save her friend. There had to be something.
She glanced over at Joline, still asleep in the aisle seat, the static from the paper pillowcase pulling at her graying spikes of hair, her bare arm hanging into the empty seat between them. Her silver rings encircled almost every finger, and an arc of bangles hung on her wrist. With her dark brown eyes closed, her face lost its usual warmth, the hollow of her cheeks emphasizing the crest of her cheekbones and edge of her jaw. Her wiry frame, tightly wrapped in her skinny jeans and tank tops, made her look a little older than her forty-seven years, or maybe it was having a teenaged boy under her roof while getting no help from a dead-beat dad.
Tess sighed and tried for the umpteenth time to stretch her legs out under the seat. She re-clipped the jade barrette at the base of her neck, then pulled up the shade and squinted into the sun. Not far below, multiple mountain peaks surged toward the sky, some still covered in snow, their ridges rough and strong. She hoped Otavalo would have plenty of trails, the steeper the better. A long run was all the healing Tess needed.
She couldn’t stop thinking about Ellie’s kids. She loved to be in that house, where dinner was allowed to go cold in favor of a good snowball fight. It reminded her of her own childhood, back before her mother had died, when life was a carefree orbit around her mother’s warmth. Tess couldn’t bear the idea of Ellie’s kids having to endure the pain of losing their mother—it was too much to expect of a child. She shook off the thought. Ellie just couldn’t die. They all needed her too much.
Tess spotted what looked like the mouth of a volcano. She knew there were dozens of them around Quito, now dormant, mountains that had molded their inner roiling into something strong and reliable, immovable. One was even taller than Denali, all of them now playgrounds for hikers trying to conquer obscene altitudes. She admired the sculpted cliffs and slants, every angle representing a challenge of mortal strength.
Just beyond the peaks, patches of dark green and brown land sloped down toward Quito, its buildings tilted in haphazard groupings, as if they had slid down from the hills and bunched up at the bottom, like slush on a windshield. A lone cell tower stood above the city, and Tess wondered just how backwater a place they might be headed for.
The pilot’s announcement of their final approach woke Joline.
“Looks like we’re going to be early,” Tess said, looking at her watch. “If we hurry we can get to Ellie’s gate before she gets off.”
“Good morning to you, too,” Joline said, rubbing her face. She slid into the middle seat and leaned over Tess. “What magical mountains. How amazing that we’re all going to be here together.”
“I can’t believe it either,” Tess said.
“Give it a chance. Nature will support.”
Her favorite phrase. Joline always managed to boil the most complex issues down to her belief that whatever should happen will happen, that nature was a divine force that found the best solution on its own. Nonsense. Ellie was an amazing mother, devoted wife, the best friend Tess had ever had. How could “nature” possible justify any of this? Ellie simply didn’t deserve to be sick.
Tess wondered if her friends would say the same if she were the one to get sick. Or would they think she had brought it on herself with her endless hours, her drive, always pushing for one more mile, one more bend in the trail? It was the one thing she knew Joline and Ellie would never quite understand. Life as a solo warrior was different. She did what she had to do to survive.
Tess put away her laptop and fastened her seatbelt.
“Just tell me they make martinis in Ecuador,” Tess said.
“Oh, they make better than that,” Joline said. Tess was too tired to ask what she meant.
KATHERINE A. SHERBROOKE received her B.A. from Dartmouth College and M.B.A. from Stanford University. An entrepreneur and writer, she is the author of Finding Home, a family memoir about her parents’ tumultuous and inspiring love affair. This is her first novel. She lives outside Boston with her husband, two sons, and black lab. Visit her online at www.kasherbrooke.com, @kazzese
Excerpt copyright © 2016 Katherine A. Sherbrooke. Reprinted with permission from SixOneSeven Books.