Presley had lost count of how many IV's she had been poked and prodded with a long time ago. This particular IV, however, was the first she had ever had to endure alone. She closed her eyes and squeezed her other hand into a fist, imagining someone else's hand holding hers. Presley knew that no matter how many times it happened, she would never be able to avoid that initial sting when the needle was inserted. She would never be able to avoid the nausea at the first wave of the medicine pouring into her body intravenously.
She closed her eyes and pictured the beach along North Topsail Island. The sand was warm, the waves rose and broke, and the sun's heat was made tolerable by the slight breeze. She pretended that instead of lying in a hospital bed in sweats and a hoodie, she was in her favorite red bikini lying on a soft beach towel. Oh, how Presley longed to be back in her beloved North Carolina – instead she was here in Oklahoma with no ocean around for miles. Of course, her treatment for the next few months would more than likely prevent her from having the energy to even walk from her beachfront condo to the warm sand she wished she was surrounded by just then.
She had come to the Cancer Treatment Center in Tulsa after her acute myeloid leukemia had relapsed. Her oncologist back home had suggested that before trying a bone marrow transplant she give consideration to being a participant in a clinical trial for a drug that was made to specifically target cancer cells and avoided the termination of healthy cells. She wouldn't lose her hair and although she would probably still lose her appetite and therefore some weight and energy, she wouldn't have the awful dark circles under her eyes or the significant pallor that the cancer brought on and chemo normally worsened. If after two weeks she didn't see any results with the experimental drug, her CTC doctor would put her on a round of immunosuppressant drugs and a bone marrow transplant would quickly be necessary if she wanted to live to be twenty-four.
AML was not Presley's first experience with cancer. When she was three, her mother took her to the doctor with severe flu-like symptoms. After a battery of tests, the doctors diagnosed Presley with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Chemotherapy had her in remission within a month and a regimen of consolidation drugs kept her from relapsing after that. By the time Presley entered the third grade, the doctor's declared her cured, although she would have to return periodically to run tests and make sure the cancer hadn't returned.
From the time of her first remission, her scans came back clean. Just before her junior year of college, blood tests revealed abnormalities in her white blood cell count. Her oncologist had ordered a bone marrow biopsy – a million times worse than the IVs – and the aspirate showed the worst: the cancer cells were back. This time, however, the abnormalities were directly in her red and white blood cells and her platelets. Her ALL had been defeated, but doctors believed that it gave way to the AML.
She skipped the first semester of the school year for another round of chemotherapy. Although her doctor had suggested radiation, Presley wanted to avoid that as long as possible. Her chemo drugs had already put her at a risk for not having children one day and she didn't want radiation to finish the job. At any rate, the chemotherapy again put her into a quick remission and the consolidation drugs kept her healthy. She took extra classes the next spring and summer semester and was still able to graduate with her degree in photography right on time.
Presley was working a photo shoot for a local surf team the day that she realized a relapse had happened. She tripped in the parking lot and cut her knee on a piece of the gravel. No matter how much pressure she put on the wound, it refused to stop bleeding. She called it a day for the shoot and immediately phoned her doctor who had Presley admitted to the hospital that same evening.
That had been just a short week ago. She quickly made the decision to come to the Cancer Treatment Center and try this new drug; if she could get better without getting sicker first, wasn't that the obvious choice? So far it didn't feel any different, but maybe it was just in her mind. She got as comfortable as she could and tried to sleep.
"No problem. I'll see you this weekend."
Chase nodded to his brother, thanked him again for a ride home from the bus depot, and pulled his bag out from the backseat. His girlfriend Lauren was supposed to be there to pick him up and take him back to their shared apartment, but after waiting for an hour, Wyatt finally convinced him to catch a ride and get home. It had been a long tour and now they would actually get to take a break and be home – not just New York home, but really home in Tulsa – for a couple of months. Chase had been looking forward to spending the time with Lauren and his family; really, he'd been looking forward to living like a semi-normal person for awhile.
He dragged his fully-packed bag up to the apartment door and fished his key out of his pocket. He put the key in the lock, but it didn't turn. Surely he hadn't been gone so long that he had forgotten what apartment he lived in? He tried the key again, but the lock didn't budge. Maybe Lauren had changed apartment numbers and forgotten to tell him. That didn't make sense, but he was trying to push out the obvious possibilities. Finally, he gave up on the lock and knocked on the door.
"Can I help you?" A man Chase didn't recognize, who looked to be in his mid-to-late-thirties, answered the door. Chase breathed a sigh of relief.
"Yeah, I used to live here. I guess my girlfriend didn't tell me that we switched apartments."
"Chase?" Relief was washed away by the awful feeling of betrayal when Lauren's voice spoke his name from behind where the man stood. "It's all right, Daniel."
"Laur, you want to tell me what's going on?"
Lauren shut the door behind her, separating the two men. "Listen, Chase, you and I have had some great times."
"You can't be serious."
She held up a hand. "Just let me finish. I do care about you, very much. But you're never here. You're never around, and I need more attention than that."
Chase wanted to gag. "So you picked some old guy?"
"Ten years' difference doesn't make him an old guy, Chase; it makes him mature. I'm sorry, but you and I are done."
She slipped back into the apartment and he could hear the locks click – locks that he no longer held a key to open. He threw his head back and resisted the urge to pound on the door and demand more answers. He pulled out his mobile and dialed Wyatt.
"Hey Wyatt. Think you can come back around here?"
Evan straightened his tie and hummed a jazz melody as he lit the candles over the splendid dinner he'd prepared for his girlfriend that evening – with any luck, the evening would end with his engagement. He checked his watch and saw that it was close to eight; Kyla would be arriving any minute. Evan checked over the apartment one more time to make sure everything was perfect and realized there was one more thing he needed to fix: the almost six foot tall bump on a log that had been resting on his couch for four days now.
"Chase, I love ya and I know what you're going through, but I need you out of the apartment tonight. Kyla's coming over for dinner and you're killing the pre-engagement mood with your post-breakup depression."
"I'm not depressed," Chase retorted. "And don't worry; I'll just stay in my room."
Evan shook his head. "Not going to work. I've been planning this evening for weeks – now, out." He pointed at the door and Chase sighed.
"All right, all right. Let me at least get some shoes and clothes. I'll crash somewhere else tonight."
"Ah, you're a very good little brother." Evan smiled and started lighting candles all around the apartment. Chase came out of the guest room to a fire-hazardous living room. He wished his brother good luck and made his way out to his car. At least Lauren had left him that.
He put in a call to his parents who were more than happy to spare him a bed for the evening. His mother warned him not to be out too late, and Chase smiled, playfully promising to be home before the sun rose the next morning.
His next calls were to a couple of friends, but everyone seemed to be preoccupied. Chase wasn't up for doing much still, but committed himself to seeing them before returning to New York. He pulled into a bookstore and parked the car. The store wouldn't be open too much longer but he'd be able to find a book and have a cup of coffee before they closed up for the night.
He found the paperback version of an old favorite and purchased it along with a large cup of coffee. He settled into a comfy recliner set within the shelves of books and started to read.
"Seriously!" someone muttered under her breath; it was enough to make Chase look up from his book. A petite girl was dressed in a hoodie and jeans with sneakers on her feet. She was trying to grab for a book on a shelf higher than she could easily reach and wasn't having much luck, even by jumping. Finally, she sighed and let her shoulders slump. Her chest heaved as she tried to catch her breath, and Chase noticed tears silently roll down her cheeks. The sight tore at his heart and he wondered what it was that had her so burdened. He cleared his throat and stood up from his chair. She glanced over at him, quickly wiping her tears away.
"Can I help you grab something?" he asked. She stood at least a foot shorter than he did and it made him smile.
She sniffled before she could reply. "Thanks. Um, that Chuck Palahniuk with the little bird on the front, please."
Chase pulled the book off the shelf effortlessly and handed it to her. "You like Chuck's work?"
"He's my favorite," she replied, giving him a small smile. "I appreciate your help."
"My pleasure." There was a rough silence for a moment. "Can I buy you a cup of coffee?"
She shook her head. "I don't drink coffee, but thanks."
Chase chuckled. "Can I buy you anything to drink? Buy your book?"
She seemed to consider him for a moment. "I'm Presley. Don't – you don't have to introduce yourself. I know who you are."
"Is that why you won't let me buy you a drink?"
Presley grinned now and shook her head. "No, it's not. It's just that I'm not really looking to date anyone right now. Not that you were looking for that, but it seemed like it, anyway."
Chase was reaching for anything now; something about Presley had drawn him in and he couldn't just let her disappear. He went with the first question that came to mind and asked, "Are you from Tulsa?"
"I'm from North Carolina, actually. I just moved to Tulsa a few days ago."
"Well then you need new friends," Chase announced triumphantly.
Presley actually laughed. "All right. I suppose I could go for a hot cider."
"Perfect." As if they were in high school, Chase took the book from her hands and tucked it under his arm. They walked together to the counter and purchased both her book and her drink. The store was nearing closing time, so Chase offered to bring her back to his parents' to finish their drinks and talk a little bit. Presley seemed to stumble over her answer but recovered quickly.
"I actually need to go back to my place. Maybe you could follow me there?"
Chase agreed without hesitation, and they parted ways in the parking lot. Presley was a careful driver, but Chase patiently followed her from the book store to a quiet apartment complex. He parked next to her and took his coffee and keys with him, leaving his phone in the car. No one was going to disrupt him from his time with this girl; even thoughts of Lauren were forced out and replaced by questions about Presley.
She was waiting for him by the building door, sipping on her cider. Chase locked his car and followed her up to the second floor, unable to avoid noticing that she again seemed out of breath.
"There's not much in here – like I said I just moved a couple of days ago. I still have a lot of unpacking to do."
Chase walked in and saw that all of the walls were still bare. The living room housed a matching couch and recliner, with a glass-topped coffee table in the middle. An entertainment center displayed a decently sized television next to a stack of DVDs and CDs. The dining room had no table, but instead stacks of boxes waiting to be unpacked. Presley showed him the kitchen and the bathroom and pointed to her bedroom, which was also mostly bare except for a bed, dresser, and vanity.
"I like it," Chase decided out loud. "What made you move to Tulsa?"
Presley shrugged. "Spur of the moment thing, I guess. You can have a seat and flip channels, if you want. The cable guy came by today and I've got loads of them." She disappeared into the bathroom. Chase wandered back to the living and set his coffee down on the table.
She locked the door behind her and leaned against it. It was absolutely awful timing for a guy to show interest in her – if the clinical trial turned out to be a failure, she was going to look and feel very much as though she was on her deathbed soon. She knew he already noticed how quickly all of her energy was exerted. Deciding she would just have to deal with it, Presley opened the medicine cabinet and fished out the pills that she had escaped to take. She was supposed to take them at the same time every twelve hours and she was a few minutes late this time, but hoped it wouldn't make too much of a difference. She swallowed all five pills, each one a supplement to the intravenous drugs she had already received her first two days in Tulsa. So far the chemotherapy didn't seem to be having all the usual effects on her, except for a diminished appetite and a lack of energy. Her flu-like symptoms stuck around, but only at the level of a bad head cold.
When Presley returned back to the living room, she picked up her drink from the small shelf next to the door and smiled. "See anything good?"
Chase was inspecting her collection of CDs. "I saw a couple of Lennox albums in there, so you must have good taste."
"I told you I knew who you were," Presley answered. "Don't worry though – I'm not going to maul you or anything."
"Thank God for that," Chase chuckled. "You okay?"
Presley frowned. "Yeah, why?"
"You're wearing a hoodie and jeans in Oklahoma at the end of August."
"Oh, that. I've had a little cold since I moved here and I guess it's giving me the chills." She peeled off her hoodie and hoped to everything that she wouldn't get the shakes standing in her thin t-shirt. At least she had given him some sort of explanation regarding her sniffles and maybe even shortness of breath now.
"Where did you move from?"
They settled on to the couch, Presley under a throw blanket. "North Carolina. I grew up in Beulaville and after I graduated from college in Charlotte, I moved to Topsail Island. I have a beach house there and I love it."
"I can tell," Chase smiled. "What's your degree in?"
"Photography. Do you want to see some photos?"
Of course he did. Every minute that passed by had Chase wanting more and more time with Presley. After an hour of looking at her work, he started to notice she was flagging. Thinking that it must be her cold getting the best of her, Chase offered to leave for the evening.
"I think I'll take you up on that. Not because I want you to leave though," she admitted with a blush.
Chase gathered his keys and walked with her to the front door. "And I didn't offer because I want to leave. What are your plans for tomorrow? Job searching?"
"No, actually. I don't have any plans. You're more or less the only person I know out here."
"All right. Well, why don't I come by around ten tomorrow morning and show you around Tulsa?"
Presley agreed. "That sounds perfect."
"Great. I'll see you tomorrow." Chase kissed her cheek, startled by how warm her skin felt. He recovered quickly and bid her goodnight.
Presley shut and locked her door and felt her face. She had seen the look that passed over Chase's features and had felt how cool his lips felt on her cheeks. Taking a deep breath and trying not to panic, she went to the bathroom to find a thermometer. When the digital display read 102.9, she dialed her doctor in Tulsa immediately.
"Doctor Kiefer? This is Presley O'Brien. Um, I have a fever of almost a hundred and three degrees … yes … no, I'm alone … I can drive."
The call ended and Presley held the phone to her chest. Dr. Kiefer had gently assured her that the fever was more than likely a side effect of the medicine and not a sign of infection, but he wanted her to go in to the Center for a blood test just the same. If she showed no sign of infection, she could go home. If she did show infection, then she would be taken out of the clinical trial and be put on a traditional round of chemotherapy in preparation for a bone marrow transplant.
She found her keys and changed to sweats instead of jeans and pulled her hoodie back over her head. Still managing to fend off the feeling of panic, she carefully navigated the dark streets toward the Cancer Treatment Center.