Disclaimer: This belongs to me. I do not give permission for this to be posted elsewhere with any small changes. Any similarity to real people or locations are unintentional, purely coincidental, and may be adapted to the story.


Additional Mentions: The heaviness of the subject may not set well with everyone. However, these moments are needed to build the story and characters along. Cancer is not a fluffy topic, but that is not all this story is about. I promise that as the story progresses, the topics become lighter. I can't promise complete fluff because that isn't life.


Love & Sex: Eventually. If a romantic relationship between two women bothers you, please do not read.


Violence: There is some and it can be graphic. If this bothers you, then please skip those sections. If I need to mark them differently, please let me know. Most of the violence will happen during flashbacks, which are in italics, and at the beginning of the story.


Feedback: I hope you give this story a chance. This is the first time I've posted anything of mine for others to read. I welcome all constructive feedback. Feel free to drop me a line and tell me what works and what doesn't. Thank you for stopping by.

Email: gdsksd33@gmail.com


Other Notes:

Flashbacks are marked with a page break using ***************** before it and after. Also the text will be in italics (all text).


Jumps in time are marked with a solid line break __________________


Text Conversations: I found these difficult to format. If you think they need formatted differently, please let me know. I put the person sending the text in regular text and then the text in italics. I tried to describe emojis used by notating before and after with *.


If other things come up along the way, I will add to this note:


Finding North

By Goddess Kissed



Chapter 1 – The Beginning


I slowly walked down the hall, toward my destination.  My steps were slow and intentional.  Anytime that I went to go check on Rhi, I always hesitated.  I had to make sure I was emotionally in-check and ready for anything that came my way.  Today was going to be trying, but not as trying as the next few weeks.  Luckily, I have a job that can be worked remotely and an understanding husband that won't mind that I'm gone for a few months.  I slowly came to the door and stopped to listen.  I could hear her pacing in the room.  Well, at least there wasn't any cussing or things randomly flying through the door.  Rhi, it is what most of her friends call her, is a unique individual that doesn't know what she means to those around her.  She is always helping others and often will go out of her way, or comfort zone, if it means that someone else's life is better.  It is more than just being kind.  Rhi is this force of nature that I can't begin to describe and we've known each other since we were children.  I watched several classmates, and friends, that used to be kind and helpful as younger children, but as they grew they became jerks.  Not Rhi.  Yeah, she went through some growing pains and was a little troubled as a teen, but with her family it was remarkable how well she was put together.


I poked my head around the corner of the door frame and immediately found Rhi still pacing the floor.  I silently moved to push my shoulder against the door frame and watched with amusement as Rhi continued to broadcast her nervousness.  Rhi had on her usual kahki/tan cargo shorts and a new v-neck t-shirt.  I liked the new shirt.  It was different for her.  Normally, she'd throw on some sports team, super hero, or regular t-shirt and call it a good day.  Rhi's shirt accentuated her broad shoulders and then fell over the rest of her upper body.  She carried some extra weight, but it didn't look bad on her due to her frame.  As the old grannies used to say back home, she is just big-boned.  I continued to watch her with amusement.  When Rhiannon was nervous she didn't have shaky hands, break out in a sweat, or get sick.  No, she became fidgety and a ball of energy.  She had to move and if confined to small areas, such as a bedroom, she'd resort to things like constantly fixing her clothes, taping her feet, flexing her hands….anything as long as it allowed her to move.

“What?”  She asked snapping her head up to stare at me.


      “Rhi, why are you so nervous?”  I pushed off of the door frame and made my way further into the room.


      “I'm not…”


      “Yes you are.”  I interrupted her and she looked at me with such a lost expression that I was instantly transported back to another time that she sat before me just as nervous, which brought on another round of chuckles.


      “What's so funny?”  Her voice held a slight edge, but I knew she wasn't angry.  Instead she gave me her ‘mean little kid look'.  I had to force myself not to laugh.  She had her forehead furrowed together, squinted her eyes to a sharp focus, and set her mouth in this thin line.  She did this so often when frustrated, but little did she know it had the opposite effect on everyone.  All of our friends knew this look and we joked about it often.


      “You are just reminding me of the last time you were this nervous around me.”  She relaxed her eyes and mouth, but her forehead remaining furrowed in concentration and I could tell that she was trying to remember. Maybe I should give her a break today.  “I remember a young woman in her early twenties sitting in my livingroom and I thought we would have to chain you down to get you to spit out what had you wound up.”  At this she leaned her head back and laughed and then her face and neck lit up with a slight blush. Rhi was the type of woman that didn't know how pretty she was.  No she wasn't the “ Hollywood beautiful” that most people look for in a person, but she wasn't fugly (that's short for fucking ugly in case you were unaware) either.  Rhi commanded your attention when she was in a room.  It wasn't just the full five feet and nine inches, larger athletic frame (she was always teased that she had “man shoulders”), the coal black hair, light brown eyes, or naturally tan skin that demanded your attention.  No it was something about her spirit, or personality, that drew you in and kept you wanting more.  She definitely inherited her natural American Indian look from her ancestors.  In fact, when she decided to dress for the pow-wows she looked the part of a young warrior.  I have never been around such an intimidating, but gentle soul in my entire life. It was my first time seeing her in her dress garb that I coined her the nickname, Chief.  I sometimes call her it just to get a rise out of her.


      “If I remember right you didn't make it easy on me either.”  She hung her head and started playing with her shirt again.


      “Hell no, I wasn't going to take it easy on you.  You had to say it or it wouldn't mean as much.  Sometimes just saying it out loud helps.”


      “Val, you didn't help me. You just wanted to watch me squirm.”  She was now staring straight at me with a look that most would cringe with fear at seeing, but I knew that she wasn't anything but a big softy underneath it all.


      “Well, that was just a perk!”  I dashed back through the door as she fake threw a pillow at me.


      Val took off and I tossed my pillow back onto the bed.  Most would say Val is my best friend, but I think of her more as a sister.  She's the one that I'm always getting into trouble with, but it is always worth it because it ends up being a kick-ass story to tell after the dust has settled.  But this is what happens when you've known someone for twenty-six years.


      It is hard to believe that we are now thirty.  Sometimes I look at Val and I still see the 4 year old that had one eye that was slightly crossed, mismatched clothes because her dad never knew how to dress her, and she always had dirt stains on her clothes from running around outside.  I used to tease her that she was like the kid Linus from the Peanuts; always a tomboy and dirty.  However, Val actually had grown into herself and was now the girl-next-door pretty.  Sometime during college she started to grow out of the constant disheveled look and grew more into her body.  Her longer blonde hair began to lay down perfectly on her head, her eye uncrossed, her dirt stained clothes stayed clean, and although she remained the rough-around-the-edges tomboyish she started to look more like the rest of the female population.  However, her attitude has never changed.


See, I met Valarie Burke at a baseball game that my father was coaching.  I saw this group of guys that often hung out and practiced with my dad's team gathering toward the side and back of the concession stand.  Being the curious soul I was, I decided to go see what was going on.  The closer I got I heard this voice that was mouthing back at the boys that were laughing.  Once I got close enough to see between the boys I saw a small-for-her-age girl standing with one hand on her hip and one finger waving in the air.  Part of me wanted to smile at the larger-than-life sass that was coming from this girl, but the other part of me became angry that the boys seemed to be hassling and ganging up on this lone girl.  So, I stepped in.  I thought since I knew the boys and they all knew that I could back up my words that they'd turn and leave the two of us alone.  Well, I was right, the boys left, but when I turned to make sure the younger girl was okay, she unleashed all her sass straight at me.  That is the day that I learned that dynamite comes in small packages and you NEVER want to be around that package when the fuse goes out.  I learned that Val didn't need any protection, but I also found that she fought just as fiercely for her friends as she did for herself.


      That fierceness was one of the things that I never took for granted from Val.  I never had to worry if she had my back because she was always standing beside me fighting my battles with me.  I never knew how much I'd need her in college, but she was right there.  My mind automatically began to remember the one night that I was sure I would lose Val forever.






“Rhi will you just sit down and tell me what has you fluttering around here?”


I stared at Val and I could feel the sweat break out on my forehead.  I had raced over to Val's apartment because I needed to tell her.  I needed to know that there was one other person out there that knew my inner most self and still loved me.  My mind played every scenario over in my head and I just knew I was going to lose Val.  She was going to look at me in that shocked-disgusted way that I had seen others react and then she was going to tell me to leave.  What would I do if she did tell me to leave?  Where would I go?  What if she told me to never come back?  Oh god, what if she thought this was a joke?  I opened my mouth a half dozen times, but no words would come out.  My tongue felt swollen and was sticking to my teeth as if I hadn't drank anything in days. I even paused my pacing at one point thinking that maybe that would help me find my voice faster. Nope.  My vocal cords had packed their bags, left, and took my non-existent balls with them.


“Rhi.”  Val was suddenly in front of me with her hands on my shoulders.  “How long have we been friends?”  I just stared at her trying to mentally count the years, but then I'd remember what I really needed to say and would have to start counting again.  Damn!  “Yep, that many.  So regardless what you have to say to me right now it isn't going to change all those years.”  She pushed me back to the couch, forced me to sit, and then drug the coffee table over to sit on in front of me.  Suddenly the walls were moving closer and the room began to spin.  I started bouncing my knee and could feel myself calm slightly.  “Rhi, just take a deep breath and just say it.”


I stopped bouncing my knee, looked her square in the eye, opened my mouth……nope, nothing but a squeak.  I saw the corners of her mouth twitch before she could fully hide her amusement of the situation.  On any other day I might have been perturbed that she found my discomfort so amusing, but I also knew that I was being irrational at this point.  I closed my mouth and tried to swallow.  I tried to make my mind clear all the debris from my thoughts.  I tried to make my heart quit racing and my body from sweating.  I knew how I looked.  I could tell I was pale because my hands were almost white and had a slight shake to them.  Damn!  I was never this nervous.  But she was my sister, my best friend and if she turned away from me, I don't think I could take it.


“Rhi,” she leaned closer to me and lowered her voice.  It reminded me of how we'd approach a scared animal on the farm. “It is just us.  Me and you.”  She leaned down trying to catch my eyes, but soon gave up. “Why can't you just say what you came here to say?”


“I,” my voice squeaked a little and was barely above a whisper. “I'm scared.”


“Well, that is a start.”  She clasped her hands over mine and forced me to look at her again.  “What are you scared of?”


“Everything.” Yep.  The damn was breaking and I didn't think I could do this. I was scared that with three little words my whole world would collapse.  Everything that we knew before and everything that would come after would be different.  This was that moment where you had to take the bull by the horns or get stabbed.


 “Rhi, I want you to take a deep breath and whisper it to me.”  She leaned closer so she could hear.


“I…” Damn!  The bull won.  “I don't think I can.” She let go of my hands, leaned back, and stared at me.  I knew that look and I knew it well.  It was Val's don't make me pull this out of you like a stubborn root you can't pull in the yard.  I exhaled feeling defeated and let my shoulders slump.  I was going to have to cowgirl up and just say it.   She leaned back towards me.  “I'm, uh,” I paused.  It was just three LITTLE words; two if you hyphenated the one!   “Val, I like girls.”  There!  I had said it!  Let lightning strike now, let god come banish me to hell, and bring on the loss of all my friends and family.


“Like girl, girls?  Or women?”  I leaned back to look her in the face and was trying to grasp her question.  Then I gasped and gave her a disgusted look.  Why did everyone always think the gay people were pedophiles?  WTF, batman?!?  “Gotcha!”  Her face broke out into a wide grin and she laughed.  I sat there not knowing what to do.  One minute ago I knew I'd lose everything and now she was sitting here laughing at me?  “You have to admit, that was a good one!  But, on a more serious side, I already knew.”


“WHAT?”  I would have jumped up if it wouldn't have knocked Val from her perch.


“Um, it is called deductive reasoning.  You should try it sometime!  You've never really been gushy over a guy.  Hell, in grade school you hung those posters in your room because they were what our other friends were hanging up AND I saw you looking at your brother's posters more than once, just like he'd look at them.  I thought you might come to me in high school when you were crushing hard on the new teacher, but not one peep from you.  I have to say though, I think she would have bent the rules for you and risked jail time.  Oh and don't even get me started on walking through campus during Greek week when the bikini babes were marching through the quad.  Last year I thought I was going to have to throw my water on you to get your attention back on the conversation.”


I just sat there, shell-shocked.  She knew.  All this time and she freaking knew. Wait!  She doesn't seem to care.  Did she just say that she's known of YEARS and hasn't said one thing distasteful about it?  How can that be?  We didn't grow up in a city mecca.  We grew up in the country where you had to counter a date request with a look at the person's family tree just to make sure your branches weren't intertwined.  We grew up where you were forced to attend church and was always going to go to hell for some reason or another.


“Wait.  You knew?”  I slumped against the back of the couch.  “You knew and you don't hate me?”


“Why would I hate you?”


“Um, I'm going to hell?  I'm one of “those” people.  You could be mistaken for one by association.  Um, I could go on and on here.”


“Who says I'm not one?”


“WHAT?”  I sat back up as she now had my full attention.  Did she really mean that? How didn't I know?  Wasn't I supposed to have some kind of radar system that alerted me to these things?!?


“I love messing with you!”  She lunged to the sofa beside me, wrapped her arms around my shoulders from the side, and pulled me back to lean against the couch.  “Yes, I have known for a long time, but I needed you to tell me.”  She paused a moment as if she wanted things to really sink in. “Yes, I still love you and no I'm not going anywhere.  As for the rest of the world?  Well, they can go fuck themselves!”



I laughed out loud at the memory.  Val was full of surprises, she definitely loves to give me shit, but she has always been there for me.  I wouldn't know what I would have done over the years without her and I know that I'd be a wreck today if she wasn't here.  I wondered over to the window that looked out into the back yard and to all the people milling around chatting with each other.  I glanced around not really seeing who was there, but seeing more who was not standing in my back yard.  I'm so thankful that I have family like Val.  Yes, she may be chosen, but at least I know we mutually love each other.  To us the word family means more than someone lucky enough to share your DNA.  No, family is the word to describe those that choose to love each other unconditionally and stand together through all of life's storms. In fact, very few of my blood relatives speak to me anymore and none of them have ever visited me or my home.  It is my blood relatives that do not stand in my backyard chatting with my friends and family that are here today.  But that was a choice my blood relatives made years ago.




I slowly came out of the fitful sleep I was having and sighed a relief to be out of my nightmares finally.  Being back on the farm visiting always brought a round of nightmares.  I enjoyed getting away to the peace and quiet every few weeks to see my parents and siblings, but the quiet also brought the nightmares.  I laid in bed a while longer allowing my system to fully wake up and to help shake the remaining darkness from my dream.  I sat up and the house was quiet.  I must have missed Dad again.  He must already be out with the animals or working in a field.  The house seems too quiet, which made me stop and listen harder. I shook my head, trying to finish clearing my dreams away, but the heaviness of the air remained.  I decided to take my time packing and getting ready to make the two hour drive back to school and work, or as I thought of it, my life.


Once I finished showering and packing, I brought my bag out to the kitchen and about tripped over my own feet as I saw my dad sitting in his recliner in the livingroom.  I smiled up at him, but he was engrossed in the paper.  So, I continued to the kitchen to set my bag down by the back door.  At least it was ready to go after I found something to snack on before hitting the road.


“Dad, want me to fix you something?”  My father was always forgetting to eat.  He could never function without his coffee, but the man could walk out to check on one thing and not be back to the house for twelve hours.  Then he'd wonder why he was so hungry.  So, anytime he was sitting still and I was around, I'd ask if he wanted something to eat.  He didn't respond to me.  I shut the fridge and focused on the livingroom.  “Dad, did you hear me?  Do you want something to eat?”


“Nah.” It came out more as a grunt and was quieter than normal.  Now I was concerned.  So, I walked back toward the livingroom and poked my head around the doorway.


“You okay, Pa?”  Yes, I called my father Pa sometimes.  My friends made fun of me because I started it when I was younger and was hooked on Little House on the Prairie.  But it stuck and I only used it for the more important moments.


“No.” He had yet to look up at me, but I could now feel his unease, which made me more worried about him.


“You not feeling well?  Need me to call mom?”  I moved from the doorway into the livingroom and leaned against the old gas furnace that had been there since I was a baby.  I crossed my arms and studied him closely.  My father was an intimidating man.  Don't get me wrong, he never really hurt us, but he expected us to mind him and never question what he said.  Basically, he was the type of man that only wanted things his way and said to hell with what everyone else wanted.  People often said I could command a room like my father.  He seemed to have this presence that just boomed out of him when he was angry and his dark brown eyes would almost glint red.  My father stood at almost six feet tall and I shared his black hair and tan skin.  He was the kind of man that would give you the shirt off his back, but if you angered him, then you'd have an enemy for life.  He still hadn't answered me, but he also hadn't turned a page of the paper since I came out of my room.  “Pa, what's wrong?”


“How could you?”  I had thought of many things that could be wrong.  One of the animals was sick, a field wasn't ready like he wanted, some piece of machinery broke, he hurt something while out this morning doing chores, he was mad I slept in and missed the morning chores, he didn't want mom to go to work, he hated I was leaving to go back to school so early in the day…..Okay the list could go on and on at this point, but I was drawing a blank on what I could have done besides sleep in.


“I'm sorry I missed the morning chores.  I forgot to set my alarm.”  He looked at me now and his eyes were almost black.  Yep, he was definitely mad at something.  But he had never gotten that mad at me missing morning chores since I had left for school about 4 years ago. Granted, I rarely missed because it was less hassle to just get up and do the chores than hear about how lazy I was when I slept in.


“How could you be so disgusting?”  He was staring through me at this point. I don't think he even saw me anymore.


“Disgusting?  I know I forgot to set my alarm, but…”


“You think you like women.”  Spittle actually came out of his mouth as if the words took effort to form on his tongue and pass his lips.  They landed on me like iron weights and dread filled my body.  Sure, I had told my mom a few months ago that I was gay, but I begged her to give me time to work up the courage to tell my father.  He slowly stood up while continuing to stare at me. “Your mother told me that my…..my……DAUGHTER, suddenly thinks she's into women.”


“Pa,” I quit leaning against the furnace and let my arms fall to my sides.  I felt like someone had just sucker punched me without any warning.  I was struggling to string a sentence together, but I doubted my father was going to care considering he was still doing the stare through me thing.


“No.”  He took a few steps closer to me.  “No, you do not get to call me that.”  He re-squared his shoulders like I had seen him do when he was trying to show the bulls who was the boss in the middle of the pasture. “No daughter of mine is going to be gay.”  And there was the upper-cut and knock-out blow.  I refused to look away from my father's eyes.  I knew if I budged an inch at this moment that it would be a sign of weakness to my father and he'd feel like he had “told me”.  I was waiting for the rest of it.  I knew my father and I knew this wasn't everything he had to say on the subject.  I watched him swallow and I braced myself for the rest of his speech.  I wasn't disappointed.  He told me about how the community respected him, that they came to him for guidance, and as a leader.  He said he had helped a few of my brother's friends find the “light” and straightened their tail out in a hurry (I'm sure no pun was intended), he told me about a few of my cousins that he had told how they would damned to hell for their actions and when they wouldn't listen to him he wrote them out of his life.  He told me how god wanted me to find a man and that a man was all he'd accept in his house.  He reiterated that his daughter would not be gay because it would be negative against him.  That the community would turn their back on him, the youth wouldn't seek out his wisdom, and how the respect of our family would be lost because the devil had taken up residence.  Once he was finished, he stared at me in the eyes almost daring me to open my mouth to speak.  We stayed like that for a few moments.  I'm sure he was waiting for me to find my voice and I was waiting for him to continue onto another rant that would paint me in a worse picture.  “What do you have to say for yourself?”


In that moment a million things popped into my mind.  I knew this was my moment to either cave, apologize for “thinking” I might like women, or go back to living an existence that had depressed me on numerous occasions.  I thought back to the times that I held my brother's colt in my hand, spun the chamber, and played roulette with my life to see if I deserved to live another day.  I thought of all the scars that were finally fading from the cutting I had done while on my road to realizing my sexuality and coming to terms with what it would mean in my life.  I remembered the hundreds of horror stories I read about teens that were killed because they came out, about the thousands that were disowned, and then I thought about the people that had found peace with who they were and who they loved.  As I stood there staring my father in the eye I decided one thing, I would not hide any longer.  I wanted happiness.  I wanted to live.  I wanted the fact that I am gay to be only one thing people got to know about me in the future.  I knew I wasn't defined by my sexuality, but I knew that in this moment my sexuality would define my future.  The next moment was the moments that put another link in your character.  I wanted to stand for me, for my life, for my happiness.  I wanted to just be me for once without the guilt trip that my actions defined my family's future.  My father was waiting for me to answer.  I could see him getting angrier and angrier as I made him wait.


“WELL?”  He reached out and grabbed my face.  I swore that they had a special class that showed fathers how to use a belt, backhand, slap, and grab ones face to be the most effective.  His fingers squeezed at my cheeks and his palm cupped my chin.


“Then I guess I'm not your daughter.”  I grabbed his hand and ripped it away from my face, never letting my eyes divert from his.  His eyes seemed to flash red and I felt like we were two wolves fighting for dominance.  My father may have been trying to get his “cub” back in line, but I was fighting for me.


“Leave this house and don't ever come back.”


“Gladly.”  I had said it out of instinct, but knew instantly that I was in trouble.  Before I could even detect movement, my father had reached back and landed a punch to the side of my face.  Pain exploded in my cheek and eye, a fuzzy noise like a TV station of snow sounded in my ears, and fireworks went off behind my eyelids.  Fuck that hurt!  I caught myself and stood back up before anything other than my feet touched the floor.  This seemed to anger my father even more, but he didn't reach back out to me.  I raised my hand to the burning at my upper cheek and touched my fingers lightly over the already swollen area. I felt a weird slick feeling, so I removed my fingers and looked at them.  I had blood on my fingers.  I looked back at my father and in that moment he flinched almost like I had pulled my fist back to hit him.  I then turned, grabbed my keys and bag, and left.


I remember looking at the farm grow smaller in my rear-view mirror and felt like the chains were falling off of me.  Would I miss the country, miss the farm, miss my family?  Yes.  But I suddenly felt free.  Free to be me.  Free to live life.  Free to laugh.  Free to define myself.  Free of guilt.  Free to love.  I was finally free to love.



I wish I could say that was the last time I saw my father, but it wasn't.  I had driven to Val's and she cursed my father while helping me to clean up my face.  She even drove herself down to my parents to give them a piece of her mind.  Of course, we both knew it wouldn't change anything.  I was scared shitless over the next few weeks.  Sure, I was going to college full-time while working full-time and really didn't rely on my parents for anything.  However, my grandmother helped me pay my rent each month.  I was scared they would tell her and she would cut me off.  Then I wasn't sure how I was going to pay to go to school.  But, they never told her anything.  Or if they did, she continued to help with my rent.  I used to talk to my mother every couple of months, even though it took me a long time to forgive her for dropping the bomb and then leaving me to pick up the mess.  She never mentioned my unfortunate meeting with my father's fist and I never told her, so either he left that part out when he banned me from the farm, or she choose not to remember that part of the story.  I heard from the “grape-vine” that my father had flaunted that I went against the family's beliefs and that was why I was no longer around the area.  After a while I figured if he needed to build his reputation by disowning his daughter for being gay, then I really didn't need anything to do with the community.  But, Val remained loyal to me.  I heard that she would tell anyone off that dared question her about me or about my family. Val was my chosen family and our family tree stood taller and stronger than anything my blood could build.  And, I was okay that none of my blood family had shown up for today.  They didn't deserve to share in this moment.


I chuckled as I walked back through the house and out onto the back deck.  I smiled and waved at a few of our old gang that were mingling with “the locals”.  It warmed my heart to see such a mixed crowd of old and new.  It was a collision of Rhi's life all collected in one place.  I had missed our old group, but we all had one thing in common.  When we were needed, you could count on us to be there.  The old gang had proven that time and time again.  It was kind of like the Musketeer saying, “all for one and one for all.”  I have to admit, Rhi was the one that was usually jumping in to save our asses, but when you messed with Rhi, you got the WHOLE group.




“Val!”  I heard my name screamed over the music, but I couldn't pinpoint where it was coming from or who was saying it.  Finally, I saw Caitlin crawling over some people trying to reach me.  When she got close enough, I grabbed her arm and pulled her close so I could hear her over the on-going party.


“What?”  I had to scream right by her ear.  I caught a few words here and there, but between her rushing to tell me something and the background noise, I couldn't understand anything.  So, I grabbed her arm and drug her into the kitchen, but there was still quite the crowd.  I led her out onto the deck, down the steps and into the yard.  Finally some quiet, or at least less noise than in the house and the immediate surrounding area.  “Now, what is going on?”


“Sonya just left.”  She said in a rush.


“Okay.  Does she want a medal or what?”  As far as I was concerned, Sonya could stay gone.  Sonya was Rhi's first real girlfriend, but I didn't think she was as serious about the relationship.  Sonya was about ten years older than us, had a ten year old child, treated Rhi like shit, and probably cheating on her.  Nope, that woman could stay gone.


“No.  She's gone, gone.  She blew up at Rhi and she stormed out saying that it was over!”  Oh shit!


“Where is Rhi?”


“She went after her, but then disappeared.”  Caitlin was shaking now and I knew it was from the adrenaline over the situation.


“No one followed her?”


“We tried!”  Caitlin was nearing tears, which wouldn't help me find out where Rhi was.


“Okay.  If Rhi left the party, then I can probably find her.”  I paused to think for a moment.  “You will need to shut the party down, gather the troops, and if I'm not back here in 1 hour call me.”  She nodded her understanding and I jogged to the front lawn.


Well, Sonya's car was gone and Rhi's car was in the driveway.  So, she hadn't drove, so at least that was a plus.  I wasn't able to see her in any direction I looked, so I took off for campus.  When Rhi was down or hurt she always went to sit in the quad under one of the trees because she said it made her feel like she was back home.  As I walked I silently cursed Sonya and wished that karma would hurry up and find her ass.  That woman had been a thorn in Rhi's side since day one.


Rhi had met Sonya on-line and they had talked for a few weeks and met.  Then she dropped off the face of the earth for about three months.  When she contacted Rhi again they began hanging out often and with Sonya's friends.  Sonya couldn't even tell Rhi that she liked her, no she had one of her friends tell Rhi that she should make the first move on Sonya.  I understand that it has to be hard moving from hanging out as friends to making out, but it seemed high schoolish to me to get your friends involved.  After they progressed things, rather quickly, soon Rhi was staying two to three nights a week with Sonya.  I would have been happy for her, but she was often left with the chore of taking care of Sonya's ten year old child.  Now for Rhi, that was like a dream come true.  She had a ready-made family sitting there for the taking. Don't get me wrong, kids are great.  But I feel it is the parent's job to make sure their child gets to school on time and is fed.  Nope, that was all Rhi's doing.  She also helped her with her homework, brought them dinner, and helped walk the dog.  I felt like Sonya was using Rhi, but I kept my mouth shut because Rhi told me she was happy.  About a month into this relationship is when things started getting shady in my book.  Sonya told Rhi that she couldn't be over every night because she wasn't ready for a live-in relationship.  So Sonya would tell Rhi when she could come over during the week, almost like having a work schedule.


Rhi is a very private person when it comes to certain aspects of her relationship with Sonya, but I do know that she refused to let Sonya reciprocate anything in bed.  I asked Rhi about this once and asked her if she was sure she was really into women.  I'll never ask her that again!  The look she threw me was unmistakably a “did you REALLY just ask me that” look.  I had to work at it, but I finally got the gest of things out of her and a whole lot of nervousness from her.  Rhi never believed in waiting until marriage for sex, but she did believe in not sleeping around for the enjoyment of things.  She tried to explain that for her that a night with someone wasn't just something to do, but more an expression of feelings.  And, until it felt right, no one would touch her.  I think she tried to smooth it over with Sonya once because Rhi suddenly was labeled a stone cold butch.  Okay, so “technically” it was true, but not like the label suggested.   As much as Rhi thought Sonya was okay with things, every time something went wrong in the relationship, every small disagreement, and Sonya would pull this out of her back pocket and wave it around.  I couldn't blame Sonya for wanting more.  I mean, here you were in a relationship with a woman that obviously had feelings for you, but yet she didn't feel enough for you to allow the relationship to be equal.  On the other hand, no means no, and NO ONE should be pressured.  Just another reason I hated the woman, although really I didn't have to search hard to find a reason.  Regardless, I always wanted to support Rhi, so I remained optimistic and didn't bad mouth her even though I always wanted to.


I looked across the quad as I was nearing the path that would take me into the large grassy area and sure enough, there sat Rhi under her tree.  I slowly made my way across the grass and eased myself down beside Rhi.  She looked like hell.  I could tell she'd been crying, but I'd never tell her that and she'd never admit it.  Her knuckles on her right hand were bleeding, so I figured she had already went a few rounds with her friend the oak tree and she was silently plucking blades of grass from the ground near her shoes.


“Caitlin said Sonya left.” I kept my voice low as this place could echo horribly.




“She coming back?”




“Am I going to want to kill her?”


“Probably.”  I put my hand on her shoulder and pulled her back against the tree and then positioned myself so our shoulders would be touching.


“What happened?”


“The usual.”  She hung her head and picked an entire handful of grass from the ground and threw it to the side. She sniffed a little and I my heart ached with her and for her.  Rhi didn't show emotions as freely as everyone else and I blamed her parents.  I mean I grew up with just my dad raising me, but he taught me the basics like it is okay to cry when you hurt.  Not Rhi's parents.  No their moto was we are going to lean on you and you are going to be strong for us.  That is why I always tried to make sure that in these moments Rhi had human touch, so she could learn that physical comfort was okay to want and have.  I swear Rhi could be a poster child for why kids needed hugged many times a day; just another reason that I hated her parents.


“Can you tell me about it?”

“I don't know.”  She took a shaky breath and leaned her head against the tree.  “She was upset there was a party, so we went to my room and shut the door.”  She paused and looked out across the quad, but I knew she wasn't seeing anything that was there because she was in her head replaying everything.  That's how Rhi processed things.  She replayed them over and over and over again until they made sense to her. “One thing led to another and then she just exploded on me.”


“The same stuff?”




I let the conversation die from there as I silently called Sonya every name in the book. Man I hated that bitch.  After a little while I convinced Rhi to walk back to the house with me.  The rest of our friends were there and had already set up the livingroom for a rowdy game of poker.  We all knew Rhi.  We knew that if we didn't draw her out of the darkness that she sunk into before she went back to her room, then she'd stay there for weeks.  Another thing I blamed on her parents.  If anything bad happened everyone usually found a way to make it Rhi's fault, so now as an adult she automatically blamed herself and internalized the hurt.   That was the last time we saw Sonya.




Man, I hadn't thought of Sonya in forever.  I was glad that the fallout from her didn't last long, but I think it had to do with the rumors we all heard about Sonya's extracurricular activities.  It hadn't been but a few days when the girlfriend of Sonya's best friend showed up to speak with Rhi.  I was told later that the visit was a warning to get tested and stay away from Sonya because she was sleeping around and had been for a while.  Rhi didn't back down when she'd see Sonya or her daughter out somewhere.  I guess Sonya had spoken with Rhi asking her to stay in the daughter's life, but Rhi told her that she needed to raise her daughter and not have an ex do it for her.  I was so damn proud when Rhi told me about the exchange. It made me feel like Rhi was finally seeing that she deserved better.


Of course over the years there were other women, but none seemed to be able to penetrate the barriers around Rhi's heart.  She would let them in, to a point, and give them the world.  But eventually, none of them could handle that she couldn't give them all of her.  I know that Rhi pretended that she was fine single.  I think she'd come to the conclusion that no one would be okay with only getting a section of who she was, so she quit putting it out there.  Hell, I couldn't even tell you the last time she talked about liking anyone or going on an enjoyable date.  Don't get me wrong, she'd go on dates, but she'd rarely go on a second date with anyone.  She'd call me the night of the date or the day after complaining about women complaining, or even insulting, her old fashioned views.  See, Rhi was one of the rare ones that the modern woman couldn't stand.  She held the door for people, opened car doors, brought flowers to pick up her date, insisted on paying, and never went past a kiss on the first date.  She didn't do all of this because she thought she was more masculine than the women she dated or that she thought that was what someone would like.  Nope, Rhi had been doing these things since she was a small child.  She felt that holding a door open or opening a car door was a sign of respect.  Bringing flowers to a woman meant she always showed up with positivity and shared a smile.  She insisted on paying because she always wanted to “do” for people.  To this day I have to almost threaten her with physical harm to pay for my own meal or to treat her out.  And, well, Rhi didn't want a woman to think she was taking advantage of them, so she always held off on anything physical until she had connected to someone on a mental/emotional level.  These were things that her grandmother had taught her and she refused to budge on any of it.


I remember the summer I began to understand Rhi and her “old-fashioned” ways.  We were heading to the local pool hall to kill some time on a hot afternoon.  A small group of us arrived to the door at the same time as s small group of adults.  Rhi stepped forward, opened the door, and gestured to the group of adults to enter.  Well, Chad Billings started to charge in already digging in his pockets for the change to claim the first game of pool.  Rhi reached out grabbed Chad 's shirt collar, dragged him back behind her, and stated “after you” to the remaining adults.  Once the adults entered, Rhi let the door go and turned on Chad .  He was wiggling and telling her to let go of him.  She politely explained to Chad that letting your elders enter before you was a sign of respect that they had earned by being older.  She had ended her explanation with the phrase “you'd better mind your place in the world” and then held the door open for the rest of our small group to enter.  A week later I saw Chad holding the door open for his parents when they were visiting the bank.  The memory still made me chuckle and when visiting home I occasionally ran into Chad .  He now had a son who was opening doors for his elders. I doubt Rhi even knew what her actions and words did that day or how she changed Chad 's life forever.  Rhi was just that type of person.  What was right was right, what was wrong was wrong.  It wasn't so much what society gaged as right and wrong, but more a common sense of humanity.


“Hey.”  The soft voice startled me as I hadn't heard or seen any one approach.  I turned to find Caitlin standing next to me.  The brunette was another friend that hadn't changed much since our days at college.  Caitlin was part of the “old gang” and still looked too damn comfy in her tight jeans and baggy t-shirt sporting the phrase “Straight but not Narrow”.


“Hey.”  I returned her greeting and flashed a smile.  “Enjoying yourself?”


“Yep.”  She sat her bottle of “Mikes” on the banister and looked out at the small gathering.  She readjusted her feet a few times and rolled her shoulders.  I held in my chuckle as I silently observed her.  Caitlin was never one to excel in stressful situations.  She was our resident political radical.  By that I mean that she was always taking up a cause because everyone needed supported. Caitlin had stood in numerous capital cities in front of court houses, governor mansions, churches etc over the past few years to help gay marriage become legal.  Granted, I never thought her one voice actually helped push anything through, but at least there were a lot of Caitlin's in the world that pushed for change. “So, where is Rhiannon?”  She finally approached the elephant in the room, per say.


“She's inside getting ready.”  Caitlin glanced back at the house and I could almost smell her anxiety.  “You know Rhi.  She has to make sure that she's wearing the right clothes.”  I was trying to defuse her anxiety by getting her to laugh.


“You know why she invited everyone.”  It was a simple statement, but spoke volumes about everyone's suspicions.  My phone had not stopped buzzing for the past week after Rhi sent out a cook-out invitation to all our old friends.  I simply stated the truth.  Rhi wanted to see everyone, so she organized a BBQ.  Once people started showing up, I could almost taste the anxiety in the air.  It was the mixture of the old friends with the new friends that had everyone on edge.   “I know that you won't tell me anything more about the why of it all.  Will you at least tell me if she is okay?”


Have you ever thought about the word okay?  I hated the word.  Hated the meaning.  Hated the implication.  The definition of okay contradicted itself.  How can one word mean successful, satisfactory, under control, and well enough?  If the definition of the word cannot be one way or another, then how can anyone be okay?  To me, being okay means being at war.  Two sides clashing.   Saying someone or something is okay is like saying you are fighting to stay afloat, but you are succeeding.  So, one could argue that while you are trying not to drown you are also succeeding at life? So if someone is okay, they are at war?  I could barely speak, but I managed to answer Caitlin.  “She is okay.”

Yep, that was Rhi.  She was okay.  Suddenly, it was hard to breathe and tears sprang to my eyes.  NO!  I WILL NOT CRY!  I quietly excused myself from Caitlin and returned to the house.  Luckily, I was able to make my way to the guest room without being stopped by anyone else and I quietly shut the door.  I stood with my back against the door and tried to control my breathing so the tears wouldn't start.  I promised myself that after the first night of my arrival that I wouldn't cry again, but damn I felt like a part of myself was dying.  No, not dying. Maybe it was better to say a part of me was in agony while the other part of me fought to be the fierce protector. Breathe in, 1, 2, 3, 4, breathe out, 1, 2, 3, 4.  Was I supposed to count longer?  Fuck!! Who could keep it straight how long the count should be? I slowly felt the tears begin to dry in my eyes and I could finally catch my breath.  One thing was for sure, we were all at war.  I stood there feeling the strength returning to me and I knew without a doubt I'd do whatever had to be done to make sure that Rhi won this battle.


I heard the guest bedroom door click close and I knew Val wasn't okay.  I could feel her emotions wash over me as if they were my own.  Hell, they kind of matched my own.  She was trying to take all of this in stride and be the strong one for me.  I really appreciated what she was trying to do, but part of me wanted to see her fall apart.  Maybe if she fell apart, then my own body would know what to do.  As it was I was torn between wanting to sob like a baby, demolishing everything in my home in anger, and laughing at the odds.  Yep, that was pretty much my life for the past week.  Had it only been a week?  Who knew that three words, one sentence, could change everything in your life?


A week ago I was sitting in my livingroom, dinner sitting on the coffee table, and I was surfing the TV trying to find something worthwhile to watch while I ate dinner.  My cell phone rang and I blindly reached for it.  An unknown number.  I hated unknown numbers and usually never answered the phone.  But I answered that night.





“Is this Rhiannon MacReynolds?”  I instantly recognized my doctor's voice.


“Hey doc, it is me.”  I put down the remote and paid attention to the call because my physician had never needed to call me herself.


“Rhiannon, I'm sorry for calling you so late, but I needed to speak to you.”  There was some shuffling scuffing noises on the other end and I thought I had lost the call.  “Anyway, I'm afraid I don't have the best news.”  My stomached flopped over and felt like a lead balloon. “Rhiannon, your biopsy came back positive for cancer.”  I stopped breathing.  “But don't worry, if you are going to have cancer, this is the kind to have.  The biopsy came back as Papillary Thyroid Cancer and we'll need to get you to a surgeon as soon as possible.”  I tried to swallow, but my mouth felt like I had just plowed a field in a wind storm.  “So, my nurse will call you to set everything up and run through the time-line for you.  I'm guessing that you'll need your whole thyroid removed and probably a couple of lymph nodes.  But, we'll get it and you are going to be fine.  The survival rate is really great.” She paused for a bit as if she was allowing it all to sink in.  “So, do you have any questions now?”


“N….no.”  I barely was able to find my voice.


“Good!  Well, just remember, this is the good cancer and this is going to be a walk in the park.  If you have questions before the nurse calls you, then call me at the office.  If you want to come in to talk about this, then we can get you in tomorrow.”  She then bid me goodnight and hung up.


I collapsed onto the nearest thing to me and stared at the floor.  Frozen.  That one word summed up everything about me.  I felt like my entire body and mind froze.  Cancer?  Surely I didn't hear her correctly!  Cancer?  Nope, that was never going to happen to me.  I was strong and healthy.  Okay so I had a few pounds on me and rarely visited the gym, but I wasn't unhealthy.  I am Rhiannon and I will never have cancer.  I refuse to have cancer!  I shook my head trying to clear the fog.  Fuck, she said cancer!  It was with those words that everything seemed to wake back up within me.  My breath caught, my heart began beating out of my chest, my vision started to darken around the edges, and my skin broke out in a sweat.  What the hell am I going to do now?


Suddenly, my mind when back to my great-uncle.  My great-uncle Roscoe was more like an uncle to me than anything as far removed as great.  I remember him sitting in his chair drinking coffee, silently turning the pages on his Western he was reading, and quietly chuckling at something in his book.  My uncle was a great man that never had a cross thing to say and was always ready for an adventure.  Most of the relatives his age found me to be too energetic or got on their nerves too much, but not Uncle Roscoe.  When I'd become restless from being in the house all day, he'd lead me outside, pick up his ever-ready fishing poles, and we'd walk to the back of his property to his pond.  Man, I loved those moments.  I remember telling him everything and always asking questions most people wouldn't sit still long enough to answer.  That man was my hero.  I can still smell his brand of cigarettes and I think of him every time I drink coffee.  I was in high school when he was diagnosed with lung cancer.  He quickly went from being Uncle Roscoe to a man I barely recognized.  I watched it eat through him and made him a shadow of himself.  The last day I could bring myself to sit by his bed was the last day I ever called him Uncle Roscoe.  He woke up from a nap and looked up at me.  In that small moment, I could see his fear and suddenly I felt his pain.  I grasped his hand and told him that I loved him.  He graced me with his smile.  The smile that was slow and lazy.  The kind of smile that worked to come to the surface, but once it got there it warmed everything it could touch, much like the rising sun.  In that one small moment, nothing mattered.  He wasn't sick.  He wasn't lying in bed wishing he was anywhere else.  He wasn't in pain.  In that moment I knew without a doubt that he was happy to see me.  The very next breath all of that changed.  His eyes dulled, his smile turned into a grimace, and he shoved my hand away from him.  I opened my mouth to question him, but he cut me off.  His voice wasn't as deep and powerful as it was years before, but he told me to leave his room.  He didn't want me there and became very agitated.  That day we had to have the doctor come and give him additional meds to quiet his agitation.   That was the day I lost my uncle.  It took me years to realize that he wasn't angry with me and didn't hate me.  Instead, he was trying to protect me.  He didn't want me to see him as he was.  He didn't want me to be the one to help him in his condition.


Then I was back at a neighbor's house.  We were all standing in the hall outside a closed door.  The husband, Mr. Brown, was standing beside me trying to look stoic.  My mom came out of the room followed by the doctor and my mother shook her head us.  As she hung her head and walked away the meaning of that small gesture hit the husband.  Next thing I knew, Mr. Brown was collapsing into my arms, sobbing.  As the body was removed and everyone bustled around us, I stood there holding a neighbor that had broken his leg in four places jumping out of a tracker without shedding one tear.  This man that seemed indestructible was now crumpling with the news of his wife's passing.  She had finally lost her battle with breast cancer.


Then I was at our cousin's house.  Everyone was sitting around in the livingroom and the air was heavy with grief.  Glen had passed about an hour or so before.  I was there when it happened, but I was still trying to process everything.  Glen's decent was quick, but definitely not painless.  My mother was comforting his wife on the couch and my father had taken the children outside to get them out of the way.  I was in the bedroom with Glen and the undertaker.  The undertaker's assistant was out on another call, so I was recruited to assist with the loading and transport of the body.  Unfortunately, the doorways were too small for the gurney to fit, so we'd have to bag him, and then carry him out.  I remember helping draw the zipper past Glen's face and feeling like there had to be more to death than this.  We all live trying to make these grand lives to show everything we've accomplished, but at the end of it there is just a bag and a zipper and your life ceases to exist.  Trying to shake where my mind was headed, I readied myself to pick up my half of Glen and trying to make it through the house without having to stop.  We stepped into the livingroom and everyone's heads snapped up and their eyes focused on the body.  We passed by the wife and suddenly I wasn't able to move forward.  Suddenly, there was a flurry of smacks, pulling, cursing, and nails.  I finally broke free as my mother got a new hold on the wife's arms, but not before my t-shirt sleeve ripped until it hung off my arm and I could feel cool air on my back.


I felt something drop on my hands that were clenched in front of me and snapped me out of the memory.  The weight and frequency startled me, so I looked down to see large drops of water on my hands. What? Why is there water on my hands?  Right then something inside me broke and I began to sob.  Tears ran down my face and dropped to my shirt, hands, and the floor.  I heard a wretched wailing and wondered briefly where the sound was coming from.  It was me.  I soon slipped from the chair to the floor and curled myself into a ball.  I tried to cover myself with my hands and if I could have rocked, I might have in that moment.  I cried until I ran out of tears.  I sobbed until my stomach felt like it was tearing out of my body.  My muscles screamed to be stretched.  I don't want to be like the others.  I don't want to wait while something eats away at me until I'm not me.  I don't want to waste away waiting for……my breath stopped again as I suddenly realized what my mind had been thinking all this time.  I don't want a stranger to pull that zipper over my life telling me that I am done.  I don't want to die!


Before I had time to think I had already hit my speed dial number and the phone was ringing.  I don't want to die!


“Hey there, chief!  What's up?”  Val's voice spilled out of my phone.  I opened my mouth several times in an attempt to speak, but nothing would come out.  “Hello?”  She paused again.  “Rhi did you butt dial me again?!”


“V…”  I choked back a sob.  Her voice spread over me like a blanket. “Val.”  It came out in a whisper.


“Rhi?  What's wrong, sweetie?”  I could hear the immediate change in her voice and a small part of me became comforted by her worry.  “Rhi, you need to talk to me.”  She had switched from panic to a soothing voice to try to coax me into the conversation.


“Val.” I took a moment to swallow.  “I need…..I have…..” The words just wouldn't come.  The blanket her words made seemed to evaporate and the cold began to sink back into me.  I'm not ready to die!


“Rhi, what is it?  What do you need?”  She waited and I could tell she was listening very closely to me.


“Val.  Its….I have….”  I took in a big breath hoping it would make the words easier to say.  “Cancer.”  The word came out as a whisper and I couldn't choke back the sob that ripped from my throat.  I thought I was void of any more emotions and tears, but obviously my body had rallied for round two.


“I'm on my way.”  The line between us went dead.  Her last words settled into me and around me as if it was her there wrapping me up in her arms.


Later I awoke to a dark house and confused as to why I was still on the floor.  As I became more aware I felt my body against something, my head lying on something semi soft, and my breath creating a heat that was ricocheting back to my body.  I began to move away from whatever I was against, but I was stilled by pressure on my waist and back.  I took a breath and knew it was Val.  I opened my eyes and moved my head back to see her more clearly.  I then realized WHY she was holding me, on my floor and the reality of the situation slammed back into me with more shock than throwing ice water over my head.  As my breath caught a small sob escaped, tears sprang back to my eyes, and seeped down my cheeks.  I squeezed my eyes shut with as much force as I could and fisted Val's shirt in my hands trying to pull myself closer to her.


“Shhh, it is okay.” Val whispered in my ear as her arms tightened around me again.  More tears escaped and the fear that was forgotten with my sleep fog now sat in the room with a thick, heavy feel.  “I am here and we will be okay.”


Her words made my tears flow harder.  I burrowed my head under Val's chin just to make sure that she was physically there and not my mind playing tricks. I needed to know that I wasn't alone.  I needed to know that in my darkest moment, there was another person in the world that wanted what I wanted and would help me.


The words came out as a broken whisper, fighting through my sobs and her shirt to be heard, “I don't want to die.”





Chapter 2 – The Party



The last few days have been insane and exhausting.  I'll admit it right now, I fear cancer.  I fear the unknown of my future.  I fear not only what I may go through, but I fear the anguish I might see in the eyes of those that love me.  I take a moment to take a few deep breaths and glance out the window that overlooks the back of the house.  Today is important to me, but I dread it all the same. Today I get to spend time with all of my friends, actually, they are my chosen family.  I have them ALL together.  Val is here from my childhood and the new family I found when I uprooted my life and moved.  I stare at the small groups that gather, disperse, and regather in another location.  That is my life standing in my backyard.  That is my family that represents everything I grew from and everything I am.


Man, I am nervous as hell! How do you stand in front of those you love and utter THOSE three words?  When Val suggested I started calling the troops, I picked up the phone to make the first call and froze.  How can someone just pick up the phone, interrupt someone's life to drop a bomb shell, close the call, and repeat?  It was hard enough mumbling those words to Val a week ago, so I knew I wasn't strong enough to repeat it.  Instead, I decided to invite everyone to my place and throw a party.  I feel guilty about throwing the party.  Yes, I know that actually sounds as insane as it is, but I feel like I should be wallowing in self-despair or something.  I feel like I shouldn't be able to laugh because when I answered the phone a week ago my life should cease to have anything funny about it.  I feel like I'm faking my way through everything and any minute my bubble will burst.   What do I do when the bubble bursts?  Why can't I laugh?  I moved the curtain an inch or so to allow me a better view of the backyard.  Why can't I just go out there and mingle and pretend that I'm okay with everything?  Why can't my heart stop beating in my ears and my feet actually begin to move?

“You ready?”  Val's voice startles me.  How did I not hear her leave her room?  I look over my shoulder at her and have to quickly hide any reaction that I might have.  Val's eyes are red and puffy.  Her face is slightly blotchy and I can tell where her tears streamed down her face.  She even has a couple of wet drops on her t-shirt, but I try to act like I don't notice.  This is part of what I fear.  This reaction.  The tears. The emotions.

I look back through the window to the outside trying to get my emotions back under control. I take a deep breath, find my center, feel the ground under my feet, and exhale letting it take any emotions I have with it.  I can do this.  I run my hand down my stomach to the waist of my shorts to make sure that my shirt is tucked in properly.  I continue my hands down the front and back of my shorts as if I can make all my wrinkles disappear.  Val's laughter pulls me from my last minute prep.

“What?” I turn to give her my full attention.

“Your nervous twitches are so adorable!”  She hides part of her smile behind her hand and tries to hold back more chuckles.

“What nervous twitches?”

“Oh My God!”  She exclaims loud enough that I'm sure they heard her outside.  “You don't even realize you have them!”  Her eyes begin to glisten, not with unshed tears, but with laughter and light that wasn't there just a few minutes ago.  I just stare at her, probably like she has three heads because for the life of me I don't understand what she is saying.  “You always check yourself over.”

“And you don't check yourself over before you go somewhere?”  Gotcha, Val!  I know for a fact that she has to stop by the mirror before leaving the house to make sure that her hair and makeup is just so-so or that her shirt still goes with her skin tone.  I don't know how many times I've been left holding open the house door waiting on her to finish her last minute checks.

“Oh, most people do.”  She says in all seriousness.  “But you, well, you do it randomly and it usually is when your mind is overworked.”  I just stare at her as she laughs at me again.  “Forget it.  Let's get out there and mingle!”


With that Val turns to leave my room and I follow her.  We quietly make it through the house.  I can hear Val's soft chuckles every few seconds as she is still amused about me and my, well, I guess my nervous ticks as she puts it.  With every step closer to the main rooms and the patio doors, the sicker I feel.  This ball of weight seems to have found itself in my stomach and my body doesn't know if it should accept it, compensate for it, or if it should expel it from my body.  I beg my body to embrace the dread because I refuse to meet all of my guests by throwing-up everywhere.


We break out into the evening air and I pause to observe the party before anyone realizes that I'm there.  I couldn't have asked for a more beautiful evening as there was a cold front working through the area.  So, the humidity that choked me earlier in the day was noticeably absent from the air and in its place was breeze that did just enough to make the middle 80s seem tolerable.  All of my friends were mingling and it made me happy that many of the smaller groups held a good mix of people.  In fact, I felt relieved that the entire crowd seemed to be getting along.  I don't know how many get-togethers I had been to where the different groups of individuals from the different parts of a person's life just did not go together.  It made for some very uncomfortable situations and REALLY long evenings.


“Rhiannon!”  I looked over to see Caitlin heading in my direction and I smiled.  “It is so GOOD to see you again and be here.”  She stepped directly into my personal space and gathered me up in a smothering hug.  At first my body started to tense in response to my personal space being disregarded, but then I completely relaxed into her hug, embracing her back.  Prior to my current friends, I never really hugged anyone and didn't really understand why everyone enjoyed the activity.  Don't get me wrong, I was hugged as a child, but it always seemed like something you did out of obligation to your family.  By the time I was ten, I stopped offering hugs or being open to receiving them.   Now?  Now, I understood exactly what a hug could do and what it could mean.  Words could fail you in the most critical moments, but a hug always said everything you needed to say.  Hugs were no longer an invasion of my personal space, but something I craved.  I craved the energy of a hug.  The warmth.  I craved the love offered through a hug.

“Caitlin!”  I squeezed her tighter to me and then let her go.  “I'm so happy that you were able to make it.  I hope that you are enjoying yourself.  I know these North Carolina summer days might be brutal to your Chicagoan seasoned body.”


“That is what the pool is for!”  She laughed and held eye contact for a few moments.  “Well, I'm off to find some more to eat and you have more people to greet.  Find me later?”


“Sure thing.”


No sooner did Caitlin walk away, than another group caught my eye and waved me over.  I spent my next thirty minutes making my rounds to greet everyone that had shown up.  Almost every group I walked up to, everyone needed a hug hello.  This fact made it feel like I had done the right thing by inviting everyone to me. After my hellos, I made my way back up onto the deck and went to check on Elle and Josh who were grilling the meat for our party.  Once I made sure they were okay and would be finished in the next fifteen minutes or so, I then moved on to George, Sam, and T.  These three were sitting out the side dishes, chips, and eatery items.  The last group I checked in on was Kam and Phil who were sitting up the drink station.


“You've socialized.  You've checked to make sure everything is running smoothly.  Are you going to stop stalling and just do this?”  Val gently grabbed my arm and led me away from the drink table.


“Well, “I took a deep breath and let it rush back out, hoping it would take my jitters with me.  “I thought I'd talk about it once we are all seated.”  I quickly looked over the backyard just to avoid making eye contact with Val.


“Get the bad over with and then the rest of the night can be all about a party and having a good time with family.”


I just nodded to her because there really wasn't a response. I took another deep, cleansing breath before Val gently nudged me toward the picnic tables.   Val did a light whistle to get everyone's attention and motioned for everyone to begin sitting at the picnic tables lined up. I pulled up a bench to the end of one of the tables and watched as the final dishes were laid out and everyone settled into a seat.  Everyone began loading their plates and a low murmur of conversation already began.  I took the opportunity to look around the table and let the love between everyone wash over me and give me strength.  I turned to Val and nodded.


Val rapped her knuckles on the wooden table and cleared her through a little louder than normal before she began to talk.  “Rhiannon would like everyone's attention for a quick announcement and then all you leaches can go back to consuming the free booze and food.”  Val's tone was sarcastic and there were a few chuckles across the crowd.


“You two are finally announcing your engagement?”  A bigger laugh erupted T brought up an old joke, but everyone seemed to have heard it or was just being polite.


“I want pictures of the honeymoon!”  Monica bellowed from the back.


“Poor Ayden!” Rita stated to the crowd.


“More like, Lucky Bastard!” Jordan replied.  This had everyone erupting again.  However, soon the crowd died down and everyone's attention was on me.


“First, I want to thank everyone for clearing your schedules to be here on short notice. I am sorry that this was all kind of the last minute, but who really needs a notice to party?” I paused to allow the small amount of laughter to end.  Most of the guys and a few of the girls held up their drinks and agreed by giving a small “hell yeah” reply.  “Second, I want to say that tonight is all about catching up and having some fun.  However, before we can get to that order of business, I have a few announcements. First, if you are drinking, please be mindful of the pool.  That means no puking in the pool!”  I glanced at a few of my family members that had been previous offenders and found them all red with embarrassment and receiving elbows to their sides as jeering from the group. I took the few seconds while the group got quiet again to swallow the last of my fear and gather all of the courage I could muster. “That's the end of those type of announcements, but I do have something else I need to say.  Each of you here tonight are my family.  Whether you knew me as a kid with pig tails or the rather strange, geeky person I am now, you each are special to me and I love you. I uh,” I could feel the sweat that was gathering at my temples and between my shoulder blades begin to run.  I felt my smile disappear and I hoped my voice wouldn't quiver.  “I received some news this week that needs to be shared, but I wasn't sure how to make that many phone calls.”  I paused again trying to magically find the right words or find a way that made this easier, but I was at a loss.  “Look, I really don't know how to put this, so I'm just going to blurt it out.  I was told this week that I have cancer.” The silence that suddenly came over my entire backyard seemed to emphasize the way my voice broke on the word cancer. I rushed on so I wouldn't lose my nerve.  “I have thyroid cancer.  I really don't have much more information at this time, but I meet with the surgeon at the beginning of next week.  I was told that I'll most likely need a complete removal of the thyroid and probably some radiation.”  The group was still quiet and I stared at the middle of the table afraid to make eye contact with anyone.  Val gripped my hand that was on the table and gave it a squeeze for encouragement.  “Listen, I'm sorry to just kind of throw it out there like this, but I really didn't know how to make repeated phone calls and have to say this over and over again.  I don't want the rest of the evening to be about this news.  I want tonight to be family gathering together to catch up, to celebrate summer, to enjoy each other's company.  Do not worry, I'm not alone as Val has volunteered to stay with me for however long is needed and we will let everyone know what is going on when we know.  So, the rest of tonight needs to be about food, drinks, family, and fun!”


“See, they are announcing their engagement!  Val is moving in!”  Thank goodness T brought the conversation full circle and got everyone to break out into laughter.  I think everyone needed that to break the ice and reset the tone of the party.





“Sam!  Sam, don't you DARE!”  I turned quickly to search for the destressed voice and instantly relaxed.  Sam had come up behind Val and currently had her lifted off the ground.  “Sam!”  Val shrieked as he took off in an awkward jog and splashed them both into the pool fully clothed.  Val came up sputtering water out of her mouth and fixing Sam with a glare that would have had me shaking in my boots.  I sighed with content as some things never change.


It was well past ten and I couldn't have asked for a better party.  I was able to catch up with everyone in-depth.  Everyone had pictures of their kids or their pets on their phone and I had to see every one of them.  I enjoyed how happy my family was and the directions their lives were headed.  I lost count of the times that I was told, so-and-so said to tell Auntie Rhi hello!  It reiterated why these people were my chosen family.  It still boggled my mind on occasion that all of these people accepted me into their life and into the lives of their children without asking me to hide myself or anything about my life.  I am very blessed.


The rest of the evening consisted of more pranks.  A few more people ended up in the pool both voluntarily and others had a helping hand place them in the pool.  Overall, the entire evening was everything I had hoped it would be for the past week.  Yeah, for the first hour or so people approached me asking what I needed or what they could do to help.  But then, we all just went back to just catching-up and having a good time.


I turned around from watching the latest pool victim come up spitting water from their mouth and glaring at the one that pushed her in and meet a hard surface that immediately brought tears to my eyes from the sting it invoked. My eyes shot up to the woman in front of me and my hand reached for my right cheek.  Before I had time to react any further, she had already slapped my left cheek as well.


“What the fuck, Monica?”  I said a little louder than I had planned.  This grabbed the attention of the remaining party goers that hadn't witnessed the slaps.


“How dare you, Rhi!”  Monica looked pissed off and she had tears threatening to spill.  I searched my head trying to figure out why she was mad at me.  “How dare you lure us here, just to tell us that you are sick!  Do you realize that this is the FIRST time we've been able to find a sitter for Liz, since she was born, and we were looking forward to spending some adult time with our friends. But, no, you had to make your announcement!”  She teetered a bit when her hand gestures became exaggerated and I could smell alcohol on her breath.


“Monica, I think that is enough.” Kam had managed to appear beside his wife.


“No, don't tell me it is enough! She ruined my adult night out!”  She turned back to me while pushing Kam farther away.  “Don't you realize how much your news affected me and then you tell me to just carry on with my night as if it doesn't matter?  I'm sorry, I can't do that!  Don't ever lure me over with the hopes of a good party when you need to tell me something.  That is just unfair!”


“Monica!”  Kam became louder and more persistent this time as he did the whispered yell at his wife. “That is ENOUGH”


“No it isn't!  She needs to understand how difficult this is on me!”


Kam looked at me while mouthing, I'm sorry.  He then guided Monica out of the back yard and toward the gate to lead to the front of the house.  I could hear Monica's muffled voice until the slam of a car door indicated she was for sure leaving.


My feet seemed to have rooted to the ground because no matter how many times I told myself to move, I couldn't.  The party remained muted and a few more people bid me good night before they took their leave.





I don't remember how I made it to my room, but here I am.  I closed and locked my door because I really don't want to be disturbed and if she really wanted, I don't think a locked door would deter Val, but I didn't want to see anyone.  I vaguely remember mumbling goodbyes to people, leaning in for hugs, appropriately laughing where I should, and smiling.  Monica's words kept echoing through my head.  Maybe I am selfish.  Maybe what I did was wrong.  The whole party was planned to share my news and I didn't take anyone else's feelings into account.  Maybe Monica is right.  It wouldn't be the first time I've been told I'm selfish.



“How could you Rhiannon?”  I stared at my mother confused.  “How could you choose how you feel over your own family?  Don't you know that you are killing your father and I?”


“What are you talking about, Mom?”  My mother had called me in a panic this morning and I had rushed the two hours home because I feared that something terrible had happened.  Upon arriving, I found my mother in a full-blown tizzy and my father had left the moment I arrived.  I could see the hate boiling in his eyes, but that wasn't unusual since I stood up to him.


“The whole town is talking this morning.  And you don't even care!”  She was now crying and yelling.  I hated seeing her this worked up and feared what it was doing to her health.


“Mom,” I kept my voice soft and I approached her gently.  The only thing I could do when she got to this point was to treat her like a skittish colt.  No sudden movements, keep my voice soft and calm, and gently talk her back from the ledge.  If only I knew what had set her off.  “What's the town talking about?”


“YOU!”  I ducked quickly as she threw her glass at my head.  Spittle flew out of her mouth with every breath and her hands were shaking as they were balled into fists.  She reminded me of a rabid dog when she got this angry and I feared she'd have another stroke or throw herself into a heart attack.


“Me?”  My voice remained calm.


“Why can't you just be normal?  Why couldn't you date Steve?  He's the most eligible bachelor and you never even looked his way.  Why do you have to be perverted and sinful?  WHY?”


“What happened, Mom?”  She plopped down into the kitchen chair and began to bang her fist on the table with every point.


“What did you do last night?”  I opened my mouth to speak, but her fist came down on the table stopping my words.  “Who were you with?”  Bang!  “Why, Rhiannon?”  Bang!  “You were with that WHORE!” Bang! Bang!  “You were out being with the devil's mistress and condemning your soul to HELL!”  BANG!  A few pieces of silverware clattered to the floor and the house became silent.  “Answer me, child!”


My mother's voice was controlled calm through the rage.  She was staring through me and most of her muscles were tensed as if she was going to spring into action.  My whole body shriveled and I knew that I could present Jesus Christ himself and it wouldn't make any difference to her.  She had crossed her own boundaries and wouldn't really hear anything I had to say now, but I had to try or I would regret not saying anything later.  I tried not to see the wild look in her eye or the tears that still streamed down her face.  Too many times I had caved to whatever she desired just so I wouldn't cause her more pain.


“She's not a whore.”  My mother smacked her open hand onto the table and sprung up into my face.  Maybe that wasn't the best way to start, but it was the truth.  “Mom, please, just listen to me.”


“LISTEN to YOU?”  I saw her hand raise and I knew what was coming, but I didn't get a chance to block it before it burned my cheek.  “I CAN'T listen to you because I have to listen to EVERYONE else.  HOW could you?  How can you be so selfish?  Is the sex great?  Can't you get it anywhere else?  No, you just HAVE to take your private shit to the public.  Well, YOUR life is now making US look bad.  WE might as well have our souls condemned as well.”  She raised her hand again and this time I was able to grab her wrist before she connected with my cheek, but this just enraged her more.  She began to frantically slap at me with her other hand.  “You will STOP this nonsense!  You will STOP being so god damned childish!  You will NOT ruin MY life!!”


“No.”  I kept my voice controlled and refused to yell.  I took a step back to get out of her reach and released her wrist.  “I've done everything you have ever asked, but I won't do this.  I respect you and dad, I respect your wishes and never bring my “perversion” home.  I pretend to be someone I'm not, just so you can feel better, but I'm done.  I'm done, Mom.”


I stepped to the side and walked around her.  It was time to leave.  Just like the day I stood up to my father, I knew that my visits back to the farm was very few if non-existent.  I had tried to equal out my life between my parents' beliefs and being my own person.  It was never good enough.  Hell, I could date Steve and something would be wrong with that.  It was at that moment that I knew that although I respected my parents, I couldn't let them control any aspect of my life.  I had to do my own thing and make my own way.  My mother followed me through the house, out the door, and even to my car.  She was screaming at me, but I didn't hear her words.  I got into my car and left.



I wiped at my eyes and continued to watch the moon reflect on the pool.  Maybe I am wrong to want to live my own life.  Maybe I shouldn't have disrespected my mother like I did that day.  No matter how many times I was told I was nothing more than trash, I tried to smooth things over.  I tried to show my love and respect to my parents by constantly compromising my own beliefs, my own self-esteem to only be yelled at and told I should repent.


I know that standing up to my parents was the right thing to do for my sanity, but maybe I am just too full of myself.  Is it wrong that I wanted to surround myself with those I love to share this news?  Maybe I do need to just sit on it all and bear this burden alone.  I should send Val home to her family.  I shouldn't have called her that night.  I should have just dealt with it all and sat on the info.  The doctor told me this would be a walk in the park, so no one would be any the wiser that I was having anything done.  I am selfish for wanting to feel the love and support of my family; just like with Mom.


What is done, is done and I can't take it back now.  All I can do is move forward, but be mindful of how much I share or lean on people through this.  I need to remember that this is my burden and my burden alone, and I can't ask anyone to walk this path with me.  This is my fight.



Chapter 3 – Appointment and The Coffee Shop


When I received my dreaded phone call from my doctor, she explained that she was putting in a referral to an Endocrine surgeon.  She explained that the surgeon was one of the best and if she had to have her thyroid out, this would be the guy she'd go to. She had said that she would send me to a great surgeon, one that she would use herself if needed. She reiterated that there was no rush for surgery, but she would try to push me up the list as the surgeon was a personal friend.  To my surprise, I was on the books with the surgeon, Dr. Causte, within a week from my initial diagnosis.   When I got to my appointment things went really well, until they did an ultrasound of my neck.  The surgeon advised that he did this on all of his patients to just get an idea of what he was looking at and to help determine treatment options.  I was sitting in a chair with my head leaned back as far as possible so he could have access to as much of my neck as possible.  As he is running the warm, sticky wand over my neck he starts making side comments.  I wondered if he even knew he was talking out loud, so I stayed silent to let him continue to talk through things.  He mumbled about definitely cancer and then asks me about two additional nodules on my thyroid that wasn't mentioned in my file.  I confirm that I only knew about two and they were right next to each other. He gently stated that I had two nodules in the left lobe that didn't seem to be fully cancerous, but they are suspicious.

This sends my mind reeling with the possibilities that these nodules in my neck suddenly have a choice if they are going to stay clean, or go to the dark side.  I picture these two cartoon drawings of pink blobs with some white and black spots leaned against a run-down building while wearing black leather jackets while two other fully pink blogs stand a few feet away.  A whole dialog of words in bubbles occur over their heads.  Basically, these two new pink blogs are weighing if they want to step through to the “dark” side and do what all the “cool” kids are doing.

As quickly as the image came into my mind, it disappears as I feel the doctor cleaning my neck and telling me that he recommends immediate surgery for me.  He goes on to explain he has a full schedule, but he is going to make a space for me as I need to get my thyroid out.  I try to look into the doctor's eyes, but he avoids my gaze.  I take a deep breath and feel his unease, but it doesn't feel untrustworthy.  No, it feels like urgency and I don't like that feeling.  I don't like that he busies himself by making notes in my chart that seem more dramatic and with a harder grip than previously.  I glanced over to Val.  She sat very still, staring at the floor, and was pale.  I agreed to the quick surgery and the doctor's unease seemed to lessen.  It didn't go away, but it lessened.  As Dr. Causte led us toward his surgery coordinator's office, he grasped my hand, looked me square in the eye, and assured me that we were in the fight together.  I studied his eyes to see if this was a gimmick that he told all his cancer patients, but his eyes held nothing by sincerity.

For the remainder of the appointment, I felt like his staff looked at me different.  I could see a sadness in their eyes when they looked at me, smiled, and wished me a good day or as they passed us in the hall.  I wondered in that moment if that is how all cancer patients feel.  You walk in and everyone is pleasant and professional.  But then the word of your diagnosis spreads and the look in people's eyes change.  It is almost like a wave crashing over people before you get there.  Or how people look when they greet you at a funeral.  I didn't like it as it added to the swirling of my emotions.

I stayed silent after leaving the doctor.  Val seemed to sense that I needed time and space right now.  Just a moment to wrap my head around everything, take a breath, and then we would charge ahead.  Surgery in 5 days.  Talk about shocked.  What the hell?  Why couldn't someone just come to me with it straight?  Who is right? Why did my normal physician tell me this is no big deal, but then Dr. Causte re-arranges his schedule to get me in sooner rather than later?

I felt a touch on my arm and looked down to find Val's hand resting against my forearm.  I looked up at her and immediately wished I hadn't.  The only word that began to describe her, in that moment, is lost.  I shouldn't have let her come to the appointment.  I shouldn't ask her to stay.  What if it is asking more than a friendship can weather?  No, I couldn't think like that.  Not now.  If I thought about losing Val on top of dealing with all of this, I would undoubtedly lose my mind.  Go ahead and take the keys to my padded room up on floor 7 with all the others that have gone mad.


Val didn't need to say anything in that moment.  As we stood there waiting for the slow elevator to make an appearance, in the quiet of the hallway, I knew Val was asking me how I was and telling me that she'd be there to the end.  I only hoped that my own small closed-lipped-half-smile and small nod told her everything she needed to know.  I'm going to say that I'm okay because that is what I need to pretend at this time.  I need to hold onto the illusion that I am okay and that this is just a walk in the park like everyone keeps telling me.  I need for Val to feel the strength and confidence in my statement.  I need the world not to see anything other than another person walking down the hall, riding in an elevator, exiting the hospital.  Just another person. I need to fake it until I make it.


The ride down to the lower level of the hospital was almost as slow as waiting for the blasted cage to begin with, but unfortunately the stairs weren't near the elevators.  As the doors slid open, I could detect the smell of coffee.  Coffee that carried that delicious smell, in the hospital, could only mean one thing.  The Coffee Shop.  Yep, that is just what I needed after the appointment I had.  I need a boost of energy and a healthy dose of Astrid.


“Want to stop for a cup of coffee?”  I asked Val already setting my feet on the course to the small coffee stand area.


“Coffee?  This late?”  Val redirected herself and started to follow me.


“Well, there should be something decaf if you are worried, or we might be able to have something special made for you.”  She looked at me strangely as I continued to lead us down the hall that would bring us to the small sitting area that held the coffee shop.


I didn't wait for a confirmation from Val as I had made up my mind.  I was going to get coffee today.  As I rounded the last corner, I could already see Astrid behind the counter filling orders.  I met Astrid about a year ago when she first opened the shop.  She had a beautiful complexion that highlights the best part of the Swedish and Korean.  If you didn't know her heritage, then you'd never guess it.  When I first met her I couldn't make up my mind if she was Latina , Polynesian, or something altogether different.  Regardless, she is beautiful.  She has the skin tone that darkens just enough in the summer to be a deep bronze, but never washes out fully in the winter.  Her hair would lie just past her shoulders, but she constantly kept putting it in a bun or pony-tail while working.  It almost seemed to be her nervous twitch while talking as she'd always start to redo her hair.  She has gorgeous brown eyes that could make even the toughest person do anything she wanted with a small pout. However, her best feature was her smile.  She has that kind of smile that can say a thousand different things without saying anything at all.  The only thing that begins to compare to her smile is her laugh.  I feel very blessed when I'm graced with a natural smile and laugh from her, my mood is instantly better.  I walk up to the counter and pull Val along with me.  I catch Astrid's eye while we are waiting for her to finish with her other customers and I point out a few items on the menu that Val might like.


“Rhiannon.”  I knew before I turned to look at her that she was already smiling.


“Hey there, Pip!”  I turned to greet her and loved that her smile got even bigger after using her nickname I had given her.


“Always with the Pip thing.  Sheesh!”  She chuckled.  “So, how are you doing, Rhiannon?”


“Don't you worry about me, I'll always come out on top.”  I had finally learned that Astrid was adopted and her parents named her Astrid after Astrid Lindgren.  Ms. Lindgren was the author of a children's series with a fictional character named Pippi Longstocking.  So, I gave Astrid the nickname Pip as a way to tease her.  I had looked up information about this character and had committed a few of the more famous quotes to memory to use in conversations from time to time.  When I was able to slip one into the conversation, like I just did, Astrid's eyes would brighten further and I'd almost swear a blush was almost present.  So, while she let the words sink in between us, I returned her smile with one of my own.  Yes, this was just what I needed today.  Sometimes an excellent made coffee drink and conversation with Astrid could help make things better in my world.  I always left feeling lighter, happier, and always a little sad that our shared time had to end.


“I don't know what I'm going to do with you, Rhiannon.”  Astrid took a breath to continue and suddenly her smile disappeared and she closed her mouth.


Astrid's sudden change in demeanor was odd, but maybe she saw someone she disliked in the hall.  I turned to Val, who had moved closer to me.  I placed our coffee orders and then let the people behind us order.  I scanned the hall looking for anything that might have triggered Astrid's troubled look, but couldn't find anything.  So, I let it go and made a note that I'd have to ask her about it sometime when we were alone and she could freely talk.


I looked up to see Brigit, one of Astrid's employees, walking toward us with two perfect Frappuccino drinks.  When I had first met Astrid, I thought she was a manager for the coffee shop, but I later found out that she actually owned the shop.  It still amazes me how much she is hands-on with every aspect of her business.  I've seen her mopping the floors at closing time, helping with morning prep for opening, and often chipping in where needed during the busier moments.  Instead of creating a tense environment when she is around, like I've seen happen in several establishments when the manager or owner is present, she actually calms everyone down.  Each of her employees respects her and never has a negative thing to say.  I reached out to grab the drinks from Brigit, but she held them just out of my reach.  She handed Val her drink and then handed me mine.  She had the back of the cup facing me and tapped the glass twice before letting me take the cup from her.  When I held the cup closer I saw that Astrid had left me with a quote of her own.   “There are those who give with joy, and that joy is their reward.” – Khalil Gibran


I couldn't help but smile at the quote.  In one of our many conversations over the past year, I had revealed that I loved the writings of Khalil Gibran and thought that he captured the human emotions perfectly with some of his poems.  I looked up from my cup toward the counter.  I met Astrid's eyes, smiled, and nodded to her.  It was a perfect quote for me, on this day.  I continued to hold Astrid's look as I was again thrown by how insightful my friend was for me.  I felt something lightly hit my arm and drew my gaze down to see a straw being offered to me from Val for my drink.  I grabbed the straw and glanced back up to Astrid.  Her smile had disappeared again and she turned away to fix something with one of the machines.  I would definitely need to stop back by to see my Pip and find out what was behind the solemn looks.



The ride home from the hospital was very quiet.  In fact, the only conversation that we held that was more than one or two word answers was to discuss dinner options.  I couldn't tell what Rhi was thinking about more, the visit with the surgeon, or our coffee experience.  I let Rhi have her quiet time, but I still stole glances in her direction to make sure she was okay.  Rhi was one of those people that will think over a situation and then out of nowhere, either hours or days later, blurt out her decision.  I remember once when we were nine and Rhi had to make a decision on what kind of cake to have for her tenth birthday.   I had asked her probably twenty times what her decision was within those first two hours.  Her only response was that she was thinking on it.  Two days later she finally blurted out german chocolate cake over dinner with her parents.  Everyone stared at me like I was supposed to understand what she was talking about.  I'm sure this is the same scenario and she'll tell me about it when she is ready.


Over dinner I just could not wait any longer to press Rhi about our coffee experience.  I had waited for an opening to casually work into the conversation, but it didn't happen.  Rhi hadn't asked if I liked my coffee or offered any more information about the woman we spoke with.  The same woman who wrote on the back of her cup and the quote just happened to be by one of Rhi's favorite authors.  Not to mention how both of them were shamelessly flirting with each other.  Oh, there is definitely a story here.


“Thank you for the coffee today.”  I stopped everything to watch Rhi closely.


“You are welcome.”  She glanced up from her plate with a smile already planted.  “It is the best around.  I haven't found anywhere that even gives it a run for its money.”


“We will have to stop in when we have to go back.”  The smile disappeared from her face and her eyes dulled.  Dang!  Wrong meaning.  “The barista seemed friendly.”


“Astrid?”  The light immediately came back to her eyes.  Now, if she just took the bait.


“Is that her name? I thought you called her Pip.”  This was meet with a low chuckle and a huge smile appearing on Rhi's lips.


“That's my nickname for her.  I like to give her a hard time over her name and who she was named after.”  She paused to chuckled some more.  “Astrid's mother loved the Pippi Longstocking stories and named her after Astrid Lindgren.  So, I call her Pip.”  This brought a chuckle from us both.


“She definitely doesn't look like a Pippi Longstocking.”  Rhi was willingly nibbling on the bait, so it was time to go in for the kill.


“No she doesn't.”  Rhi continued to eat without elaborating.


“That was quite the message on your coffee.”


“Astrid's always giving me a quote of some kind.  Sometimes it is from an author, movie, or even old Indian sayings.”


“This happens every time you get coffee?”


“Not every time, but always on the days we don't get to chat for very long.”  She pushed her plate away and sat back in her seat.  I tried to act like I was just playing with friendly conversation and began to push my food around on my plate.  “What do you want to know?”


“Huh?”  I tried to act confused.


“Val, don't play me for a fool.  You are after something.  Why don't you just come out and ask instead of all of these mind games?”


“I was just curious about the lady today.  You've never really mentioned her, but yet it seems like you have a deeper relationship than acquaintances.  She wasn't at the cook-out, so I know she's not in the inner circle for you.”  She continued to stare at me and I became uncomfortable.  “I just wanted to know where she fit in.”


“Why?”  She smirked.  “You jealous?”


“What?”  I gasped.  “Jealous of what?”


“Val, no one is swooping in on your territory for best friend.  You have nothing to worry about.”  She stood up to clear her dishes from the table and I had trouble letting the words sink in.  Jealous of a friendship.  Nope, I think Rhi is in denial or reading the situation wrong.


“No, Rhiannon.  I'm not worried about someone trying to step into your life in my role.  I was merely curious about the woman that my sister was so openly flirting.”  Rhi's dishes clattered into the sink, but I didn't hear anything break.


“What?”  She almost squeaked and it was my turn to smirk.


“Flirting.  You know that thing you were doing?  Oh and don't forget that she was throwing back everything you were dishing.”  Rhi opened her mouth a few times to try to speak, but closed it in frustration.


“I don't think you know what you are talking about.”  Uh-oh, now she sounded like she was ready to be defensive.


“It is okay, Rhi.”  I stood up and neared her at the sink.  “I can tell that you are intrigued by her and I merely wanted to know more about the woman that has captured your attention.”  She let out a deep breath and I could visibly see her body deflate.


“She's the owner, not just the barista.  We met a little over a year ago and things just got more familiar with her.  I'm not flirting and we aren't quite to friend status, but we aren't just people meeting in the all every day with a hello.”  She looked up at me.  “I was flirting?”


The sincerity of her eyes cut-off my laugh completely.  My heart went out to her.  I knew deep down that Rhi was just being herself with Astrid and doing what came natural to her.  But, she had no idea that this was flirting.  Rhi can walk into a room and tell you if someone is honest or what they are feeling, but she can't identify flirting until you beat her over the head.  It is endearing and heartbreaking all at the same time.


“Yes, Rhi, you were flirting and doing a damn good job of it.”  Rhi began picking lint off her shirt that wasn't there.  I could tell she was now nervous and her mind immediately flipped into overdrive.  “And don't worry, Astrid was flirting right back.”  Her hands stilled, her head snapped up, and her eyes got wide.


“She was?”


I just nodded and her smile returned.  Rhi bid me good night and left the kitchen.  So, she liked the barista.  Rhi hadn't shown interest in anyone in a long time.  I know she'd go out on dates some, but very few made it to the second date, and maybe two had ever gotten a third date.  Yes, Rhi was socially awkward at times because of her inability to sense if someone liked her. However, this wasn't the reason she couldn't find the right lady.  Plenty of her dates wanted a repeat performance, but she just hadn't found anyone that intrigued her enough to ask them out again.  Well, until Astrid.  No, they haven't dated, but Rhi's actions today spoke louder than anything she could have told me.


The doctor's visit had not gone as well as either of them hoped and I knew that Rhi was trying to process.  I could almost see the severity of the situation sinking in and taking hold on her.  I won't lie, when the doctor said he was making room to have her surgery in a week I almost panicked myself.  However, when we stepped out of the elevator, all the negative emotions left her as she placed the smell that wrapped itself around us.  I had almost had to run to keep up with her determined strides.  Then when we arrived, I could tell something was up with how Rhi just paused before she continued to the counter.  I don't think she was even aware that she did anything.  I could almost feel her muscles relax and the weight of the last hour just drift away.  And when I followed her gaze to see the other woman look up I knew there was more to the picture.


I had intentionally kept a little distance between myself and Rhi as I wanted to observe how things were going to progress.  Even as Rhi had begun to explain the menu to me, she became distracted and then just abandoned it.  Rhi never got distracted when she was explaining something to another person.  She was very focused all the time.  However, when I heard Rhi's name come from the woman behind the counter, I did a double take.  It was a little breathy, but also full of happiness and surprise.  I had watched them exchanged their hellos and looks until temptation got the better of me.  I slid over by Rhi and gently placed a hand on her arm.  I didn't need Rhi's attention, but it was a test for this other woman and she took the bait.  As soon as she spotted me, the friendliness left her whole face.  She was still very pleasant toward me, but she looked from me, to my hand, to Rhi, and back to my hand before she met my eyes with a cold stare.  No, Astrid did not like the closeness I had to Rhi and this made me smile.


If I had to guess, Rhi had never shown up to the coffee shop with another woman.  I was waiting for Rhi to introduce us, but she never did.  That was the other red flag for me as Rhi was always socially polite.  Meaning, she always did the polite thing, like introducing mutual parties meeting.  Heck, she still would introduce me to some of her co-workers even though we knew each other by sight and first name.  That is just Rhi.  She always wants to make everyone around her comfortable.  Not today.  And then there was the message on her cup.  Yep, Rhi was intrigued. Maybe I'd have to venture to the coffee shop while I was waiting on Rhi's surgery to be complete.



Chapter 4 – Surgery



The last few days have flown by with having to notify my manager of how quickly the surgeon wants to do surgery.  My manager has been great through this process.  Officially, I'm still on probation at work as they have a 9 month probation period, but he reassured me that the company would stand behind me with this diagnosis and it would not jeopardize my employment.  That was a huge stress ball off my shoulders. I won't lie, I had a panic attack to Val about my job and what I was going to do with losing health insurance and fighting cancer.  She assured me that it would work out, but I was still stressing about it.  My manager offered to make a large team announcement for me, but I declined.  I didn't think I wanted to tell stand in a room while someone talked about my diagnosis and asked everyone to give me patience, or prayers, or whatever he might have said for them to give to me.  I didn't want to see the reactions on people's faces.  I didn't want sympathy.  I didn't want the job of comforting everyone around me when I couldn't even comfort myself. Although I didn't want a huge announcement made, I did feel that I owed a few friends/co-workers an explanation as to why I wouldn't be in the office for a few weeks.  You'd think that I've now had almost two weeks under my belt of telling people I have cancer, but I still find it hard.  I already had issues telling people because I feel like I'm asking for some kind of reaction and that makes me uncomfortable, but this seemed to get worse when I broke down and actually called my mother to tell her about my surgery.

I know I vowed that my blood family didn't have the right to know about my cancer and that I'd fight without them.  Damn my upbringing, or maybe I should call it brainwashing!  No matter how many times I told myself that I shouldn't call my family, I eventually broke down out of grief and made the call.  Val and I had already circled through the conversation and tried to come up with every excuse/insult that they could possibly throw at me, but nothing really prepared me for my mother's words. I could still hear her seething tone in my head echoing specific words and it made me feel even worse.  My mother informed me that is was my devilish and perversions that led God to rain down this punishment on me.  She went on to summarize every sin that I've committed that she could remember and told me that there wasn't forgiveness for someone like me. She told me that I shouldn't tell anyone because I didn't deserve to have anyone to support me and that I wasn't important enough to worry about sharing the news.  Her last parting dig hurt the worse, she told me that she wished I hadn't called and made her waste a few moments worrying about a cancer diagnosis when I so blatantly deserved to walk through hell. Yeah, my mom just won the mom of the year award.  The phrase, kick a dog while he's down, came to mind.  I try not to let the words sink in, but for some reason they still find that raw nerve and just strum on it like someone playing the fiddle in an old fashioned country song.

After my conversation with my mother, Val kept reassuring me that people wanted to know, that people wanted to support me.  Not fully convinced, but swayed enough, I decided to go ahead and tell my work friends about what is happening. Even though I only spoke to only a few friends at work, the word still spreads.  The rumor mill at work is horrible.  You could fart and before it left your ass the floor would know.  That is just how it is in an office.  One thing did come from telling so many groups of people about my diagnosis, I learned that there are specific ways that each individual will react.  So, instead of concentrating on what I was saying, I'd concentrate on their reactions so I could categorize them.  Nerd much?  Yep, that is me.

The first type of person, is the one that requires to live in denial.  These are the people that do not react to the information provided to them.  They give a small smile to acknowledge that they have heard the information, but reeks of “I'm sorry”, and then they leave the conversation by either physically walking away or by becoming busy with something else.  It isn't that they aren't, or wont', be supportive, but I think they require themselves to live in denial in order to process.  I'm still trying to determine if the “sorry” smile is their apology for my circumstance or their apology for their non-action and subsequent pretending nothing changed.  I don't blame them for their reaction.  I'm fully aware that these type of people need the distance and pretending in order to deal with the issue.

Then there is the type of person that immediately looks like a sad puppy and have the need to touch you.  These are the people that look like they are going to cry, but throw their arms around you whether you have that kind of relationship or not.  It reminds me of the old Methodist ways of the “laying of hands”. Growing up, we'd be called to gather around members of the church that were sick or were going through some personal crisis.  Then the preacher would ask that everyone either touch the person you were gathered around, or if you were unable to touch the person directly to touch a person that was touching the church member.  Once this was done, then a mass prayer was said to God to heal you or your life.  The belief was that by everyone connected and concentrating their energy toward one specific church member, then the power of the healing would be quicker and stronger.  Now, don't get me wrong, I absolutely believe that physical contact from another person, or even from animals, has many healing power.  But this kind of touch was different to me, it felt heavy with sympathy and sadness.  Although I share affection with my chosen family freely, I was still very reserved to allow just anyone to touch me.  Regardless, these types of people provided instant support and then moved on quickly.

Next is the criers.  These are the people that feel the weight of your words and instantly react with tears.  I like to avoid these types of people if at all possible.  It isn't because I feel embarrassed by the outpouring of emotion or that I don't understand that these people just seem to feel deeper, or more dramatically, than others.  No, I like to bypass these people because this is the type of person that I end up having to comfort.  I don't even know if these individuals realize what they are doing or how they react, but it is the same with each of them.  I explain about my diagnosis, they begin to cry, and then I'm comforting them through their emotions by telling them it is going to be okay, that I am strong, and that the doctors are very positive about everything. These are the ones that exhaust me the most.

The last type of person is the faith supporter.  Now, before I ruffle your feathers, please understand that I believe in faith and putting your faith in a higher power.  However, it is hard to contain my eye-roll after the hundredth “God will heal you.  Just remain strong” speech.  Not once has anyone asked me about my religious preference or thinks that maybe my belief system differs from theirs.  Nope, if you aren't wearing a hijab then you are assumed to be Christian.  Although the Christian faith is the most popular or default in America , I actually follow my ancestors and am considered Pagan.  I believe in a higher power, but it isn't contained to one God or one Son that is going to save me.  However, this is not a religious class, so I digress.  It is hard to feel the support of someone that constantly spouts God to me.  Also, it reminds me a lot of my mother, which instantly sours the words and makes the faith supports a sour pill to swallow.

It is odd to think that I've already categorized my friends and family into four separate type of supporter, but I still haven't taken time to really think about my diagnosis.  Hell, the fact I keep saying diagnosis instead of saying cancer, should say enough.  Cancer is the big, bad, curse word that starts with a C.  Okay, maybe it is just another C curse word.  Well, saying I haven't thought about things isn't completely accurate either.  The diagnosis is all I can think about, but I haven't sorted out how I really feel about it or what will happen.  I think I fear knowing the feeling part.  Society states I need to be fearful, depressed, stressed, emotional, etc.  I think I'm just numb.  I've been yelled at, slapped, cried on, prayed for, and looked upon with sympathy all for having cancer.  Everyone begins to treat you differently, almost like if they are too close to you it will spread to them. One night I was trying to explain all of these thoughts to Val, and the next morning I had a Pintrest notification for a shirt that says, “I have cancer, not cooties.”  Yes, the perfect shirt to sum up so much about this whole experience.

I came to the lake today directly after work, hoping to catch the sunset and have some time alone.  Tomorrow I start my battle.  Tomorrow I begin my biggest fight to date.  But that is tomorrow.  Tonight, I need to find peace.  Tonight I need to ground myself.  It feels weird to think that there is something growing in me that could eventually kill me.  I find myself pausing at the strangest times to see if I can feel it, sense it, there growing in the cells.  I do this until I think my mind will go mad with the thought and then move on.  I can never feel it.  I know that something isn't right as I have felt different for some time, but I can't pinpoint what makes it feel different.  Yes, now I have a name to attach to the feeling.  I have scientific evidence and the knowledge brought about by the hours of research I've done over the last few weeks.    

I've spent hours combing through support sites to know what individuals have gone through with this diagnosis.  I keep telling myself that it is to be well informed, but I keep praying that once I'm through reading about other people's experiences that I will be more equipped to finally deal with the emotional side of this, but I never find myself ready.  So, then I move to reading the same research I've read before, or looking for support items.  I created a new board on Pintrest and began pinning all kinds of pins.  Both funny and serious.  Some of the pins are just words, but I feel like I will know the inside slam to each of them in the near future.  I keep feeling like I'm missing something. Not physically missing something, but more like there is something just beyond the edges of this knowledge that isn't connecting with me yet.  Any other day I would worry about not having those dots connecting together, but today I just feel like it will make sense at the exact point that it should and not a moment sooner.

Through all the uncertainty that surrounds tomorrow, I keep finding strength by knowing so many people survived this.  They went through the surgery, the treatment, and are living life today.  If they were strong enough, then I am too.  I've had a barrage of messages from my chosen family and friends today. Everyone wants to let me know that I have this and that they are behind me.  Their words give me strength, but the fact they remembered to text or call me means even more.  And as much as I feel their love and that I have lots of support, it almost makes me feel worse about everything.  You see, I'm a perfectionist.  I strive to do everything right, but this isn't something that I control.  I keep fearing that I'm going to fail at this fight and that is completely on me. No one could step in to fight for me if I got tired.  No one.  Just me.  Just me to stand, looking the enemy in the eye, and pull the trigger.  It was all on my back.

I watched the last rays of the sun disappear from the sky and felt like it was a closing of this chapter of my life.  I had already referred to this section of my life as prior to cancer.  I tried not to think in those terms as I didn't want to give “it” any more power than it already had in my life.  But it is how it felt.  This was the door closing on a section of me and I was standing ready to open the next door.  I already knew what door would open, but I couldn't bring myself to turn the knob.  I didn't want to see what the other side held for me just yet.  I headed home stuck in the middle of the doors and not feeling anything, but alone.




I heard Rhi open the back door, so I muted the TV.  Today had been hard.  I had spoken to Ayden earlier and had cried.  I didn't want Rhi to see me like that because I needed to be strong for her.  I needed to be her tree to climb into so she had support.  After eating a light dinner, I curled up on the couch with some hot cocoa and decided to lose myself in a mindless program.  Rhi had walked down the hall to her bedroom without really saying anything to me.  So, I turned back on the volume, but lowered it so it wouldn't disturb her.  I didn't want to push her.  She hadn't shown up after work and I wanted to head out to find her, but figured she needed her down time.  I figured she went to watch the sun set.  Being out at the lake always made Rhi feel better.  She said that it helped her to “reset”.

Rhi returned to the living room and eased down on the couch next to me.  She just sat there staring at the TV without saying anything.  I glanced at her a few times trying to figure out where she was on the emotional scale, but gave up because she was all over.  As much as I knew her emotions had to be running rampid, I also could tell she was numb.  It was the way that Rhi dealt with things that overwhelmed her.  It had taken me a while to understand this side of her when we were kids, but I came to know this is how she needed to process.  I sat up and turned toward her slightly.  She glanced at me and I almost gasped.  All I could see in her eyes was pain and my heart broke for her.  I twisted toward her, wrapped my arms around her shoulders, and guided her to lean against me.  She repositioned to make herself more comfortable, but she allowed me to cradle her.  This was a rare need for her, so I remained still, staring at the tv program.

I know that Rhi refuses to talk about her upcoming surgery or the cancer in general because she doesn't want to burden anyone.  Hell, I've seen how people react to her.  I also know that she'd never want to inconvenience anyone, so I've tried to find ways to help.  Sometimes, I feel like I just barged in and took over her house and life, but I have that right.  She's like my sister and I need to be there for her.  She'd never ask me to be there, but I wanted to be close if she needed me.  Like tonight.  If I wasn't here to hold her and give her comfort, then what would she be doing right now?  I did the right thing.  It is in these moments that I know I was right to barge in and take over.

The program on TV switched from a game show to a game of giving away your heart.  It amazes me that twice a year the nation is held captive while one person gathers twenty people together and swears they will find the love of their life.  I'm guilty of getting caught up in the drama and social conversations over who he/she is going to pick to stay.  The “contestants” are always considered the “pretty” people and it just feeds society with more theories on what is normal for love.  At this thought I almost laugh out loud because the show depicts nothing about love in the real world.  I think about my marriage with Ayden and how it is different from anything you would ever see on tv.  The relationship is full of nights of helping each other clean up after being sick, arguing over who was supposed to pay the light bill when you come home to find it was accidently turned off, and the stresses of finding time to be just us amongst the stress of life.  You'll never see that on one of these shows.

“Val?”  Rhi's voice is almost too low and I almost missed it.  I mute the tv.


“Thank you.”  Her voice cracks from emotion and tears sting my eyes immediately.

“I love you, Rhi.”  I place my cheek against the top of her head and tighten my hold on her.  Now is not the time to dismiss her thank you with a simple welcome or no thanks required.  She sounded so small and distant.

“I love you, Val.”  She remained quiet for several minutes.  We both were staring at the TV with the mute button still on, so it was silent in the house.  I watched a group of people splashing around in a pool and drinking wine.  “Val?”

“Yeah?”  I had to strain to hear her as it was slurred with sleepiness.

“Why am I unlovable?”  The tears immediately spilled over and I placed my lips to the tops of her head.

“You'll find your princess to love you, Rhi.  She's just waiting out there for you.”  I continued to hold her.  Maybe if I held her tight enough, I could hold her together for one more night.


“Yeah?”  My voice was barely a whisper now too as I tried to keep my tears hidden.

“I'm scared.”  With this her body shook with a sob and I tightened my arms again. I leaned my head against hers so I could talk directly to her ear.

“I know.”  If I didn't feel her body jerk once in a while, I wouldn't know that she was crying.  “I'm here, Rhi.  I'll always be here.”

I continued to hold her long past our tears drying, longer than the couples frolicking on a foreign beach, and long enough that the room began to light with the rising sun.  I'd have to let go of her soon.  I'd have to release her to a stranger that swore he had her best interest in mind and let him do his part to help her with her battle.  I felt helpless.  As long as I was holding her and showing her the strength of my love, then at least I was doing something.  As scared as she was to step forward in her battle to beat this ugly disease that I almost couldn't stomach to name, I was just as scared to let her go to the battle.  I needed Rhi in my life.  Our world needed Rhi, she wasn't done making her mark.  Rhi needed to live and I didn't want to let go in fear that she'd slip from the world if my arms weren't holding her here.




The next morning went by in a blur.  Since Rhi is an adult and the doctor is squeezing her in, her surgery isn't until late afternoon.  We had both awoke still in our positions on the couch.  Neither of us commented on the previous night, but instead went about preparing for the day.  The ride to the hospital was more silence, but I never felt like we needed to say anything.  I was scared that Rhi would act odd after last night.  Over the years I have learned that, Rhi doesn't break down and need the emotional support very often.  And when she does finally break, then she always feels guilty about it the next day.  However, there doesn't seem to be any guilt this morning.

We get Rhi registered for surgery and I take over possession of her hospital over-night bag that has a change of clothes for the both of us and other essentials we may need.  The doctor was unsure if Rhi would be returning home tonight after surgery, or if they would keep her overnight.  It all depended on when her surgery ended in relation to the outpatient surgery hours.  So, we had planned for both ways.  They let me come back to the pre-op area with her and they said I'd be able to stay until they took her to the surgery room.

The transformation from Rhi the warrior, to Rhi the patient was disturbing.  I'm used to seeing Rhi standing tall and unbeatable in almost anything she wears, but I guess hospital gowns have a way of stripping you of everything powerful.  Then they began placing the heart monitor and the IVs.  Of course, she took it all with a smile and a joke.  The nursing staff loved her as she brought a little humor to the room and put them all at ease.  It was easy to forget why she was here and to believe that everything was okay.  But every time I'd look away from her and to her surroundings, the more reality set in about her diagnosis.  Don't get me wrong.  I know that the diagnosis is real, but seeing all of the wires and tubes attached to her stripped me of any disillusions.  I tried to look at everything as her armor to go to battle, but it didn't feel like armor.

All too soon, they came to get Rhi for her trip to the operating room.  I leaned down to her bed and squeezed her to me and kissed her forehead.  We exchanged I love yous again and then they wheeled her through the doors.  As I stood there staring at the closing doors a nurse pressed a buzzer into my hand that would light up and vibrate when there was news about my loved one.  I could then pick up any phone located in the hospital to hear the message.  I looked down at the buzzer and felt a disappointment wash over me.  These were what they gave me when I was waiting for a table to eat dinner with friends or family.  But today, this was my lifeline to Rhi as she began her battle against cancer.


The bed had a wobbly wheel.  It reminded me of a janky cart you got when shopping at a store.  The vibration from the wheel combined with the lights speeding by made my stomach turn over and the nervousness began to sit in.  This wasn't my first time in surgery, but was this really surgery.  I hadn't let on to Val, but even though thyroidectomies are almost routine at this point in the US , there are still MAJOR problems that can occur.  One small slip of the scalpel and I might never talk again, or even breathe without a trach tube.  Also, the surgery site was near two main arteries that feed my brain blood.  One nick to those and I could bleed out, at worst, or need blood transfusions.  Not to mention infections that could set in.  But I had faith in my endocrine team.  My team would get me through this.

The tech finally delivered me to the next stop on my journey.  I was wheeled into a room much like the one I had come from.  Inside the room stood a new person in scrubs and a hair net that I hadn't met yet.  The guy wheeling my bed squeezed between my bed and the new guy.  The two nodded at each other.  The familiar tech stopped at the end of my bed and wished me luck and a speedy recovery.  He then drew the curtain and left.  I grabbed my rails on the bed and began to sit up.  The new guy turned around then and put one hand on the railing next to my hand and the other one to cover my hand.  Nope, I didn't like this guy.  I grew very uncomfortable around people that just assumed they could touch me.  I drew my hand out from under his and fixed my hardened eyes directly into his.  He immediately stood up and removed his hands from the railings.  Inside this pleased me and my uneasiness.  Either he would bend to a more dominant individual, or the man knew how to read people.

“Ms. MacReynolds,” he flicked his eyes back up to mine.  “My name is Joe and I work with the anesthesiologist team.  Do you know what team that is?”

“Yes.”  This guy must think I'm stupid.  “I saw them about two hours ago for my final sign-off.”

“You are correct.  However, since then we have decided that we need to take another precaution for your case.”  He paused and I swear he smirked.  “Due to the type of surgery you are scheduled for, we would like an additional method of monitoring your blood pressure.”

“Ok.”  Alternative method?

“So, we need to place these tubes into your wrists.  I won't lie, it can be a little painful during the insertion, but we will numb the areas as much as we can.  Once the tubes are in place, then we can have cleaner access to get your blood pressure by the monitoring of your blood.”  He turned back to his table of supplies.  “Any questions before we get started?”

“Why is this needed again?”  I paused but then rephrased.  “I get that it gives you a more accurate read of my blood pressure during surgery.  However, is this normal for thyroidectomy surgeries?”

“Not specifically your surgery.  It is mainly used for surgeries that may be more difficult or take a little longer than 2 hours.”

“My surgeon told me, not an hour ago, that he expects to be done in about 1 and a half hours.  Does he know that the Anesthesiology team wants this in place?”

“I'm sure that the lead anesthesiologist has made him aware, but this is a decision our department made, not your surgeon.”  He turned back to my bed with two hands full of supplies.  “Please lay back and we will get started.”

“Can you open the curtain?”  My uneasiness was back.


Being in a small room with someone that made me uneasy was hard to do.  I just wanted to bolt from the bed and refuse everything the guy explained.  I closed my eyes for a moment to calm my nerves while I followed the tech with my ears.  These types of situations often blurred in my mind between the present and old memories.  When I was younger I would dream that I was in a small room with a man, but I couldn't see his face.  My bare back would touch the cold wall and make the sweat on my skin feel like it was ice.  But I didn't dare more forward because this unidentified man blocked the door and there wasn't a way to get past him.  I could hear his sickening half laugh, half out of shape breathing that always smelled like day old meat and onions.  His breath would mix with the pungent odor of stale tobacco and body odor. I would wake from these dreams and almost attack anyone near me.  My parents would leave me be when I was having a nightmare because they knew it was this one.  I would catch them whispering afterward.  I don't think they knew I could hear them yet because I was still huddled in a corner with my eyes closed, but I'd hear them say, “she's remembering”.  No one would talk about my dream and often I was told it was no more than a dream.  However, anytime I found myself enclosed in a room, and if I was uncomfortable in any way, then all of my senses would revert back to what they felt, seen, and smelt in my dream.  As an adult, I now knew several ways to calm myself without lashing out people, but it didn't mean that the occurrences didn't bother me.  I hadn't had these feelings in a long time.

I took several deep breaths and tried to push it all from my mind.  I continued to monitor the tech closely while I reeled in my emotions.  He had deposited more supplies next to me on the bed and had quietly moved away again.  He stepped to my bedside and just paused.  I could feel his eyes upon me.  I opened my eyes staring up into his eyes.  He didn't jump like others have done before, but his eyes gave away his shock that I knew where he was.  He had moved to the other side of my bed.

With one last explanation of what he was going to do, we began.  He warned me again that it might become painful, but instructed me to breathe deeply.  He began with the needles to numb my wrist area.  Those needles always hurt worse than anything they did to you after.  I had learned a long time ago, to take a deep breath in when they inserted the needle.  This worked for blood work, shots, IV placement.  I don't know why, but it seemed to make the string less.  Soon the stings disappeared.  Joe reached over me to grab some of the discarded supplies.  He warned me I would feel pressure.  So, I let my mind widen in my typical meditation beginning to help lessen the awareness of anything superficial.  This worked on a lot of things in my life when I felt pain.  However, after a couple of minutes the pressure feeling broke through my mental barrier and crossed from unpleasant to painful.  The few seconds following the pain and suddenly it became very painful.  I drew in some couple of deep breaths through my mouth and let them go through my nose.  This was my last attempt to calm my body from the intense pain that was radiating from my arm.  Soon, Joe gave up declaring that it was not going well and wasn't staying in my arm.  So, he began cleaning up his mess.  I glanced over to my arm and saw blood all over it.

Initially, I was shocked, but I knew that trying to get something in a vein could cause bleeding.  Anyone that has ever seen an IV blow while being inserted could attest that sometimes the blood just got messy.  So, I settled back into the bed and watched Joe bandage the area.  He then moved to the other side of my bed and advised that he wanted to try this wrist before giving up on the procedure.  So, we went through the same process.  It didn't take as much effort to reach my meditative state, so I was happy to be calmer quicker.  However, soon the pain tore down my mental barrier and escalated quickly.  I gritted my teeth and tried to struggle through it.  I knew my pain tolerance was quite high and I had withstood many painful things in my life.  I tried every trick in my book to lessen the pain for my body.  It reached a point that I was ready to ask Joe to stop, but was trying to hold on for a few more moments.

“What do you think you are doing?”  My eyes snapped from the ceiling to the curtain area and directly landing on my surgeon's red face.  The sudden question startled Joe, which in turn caused him to do something that skyrocketed the pain, and a grunt escaped my throat.  This caused both men to turn towards me.  “Joe, what are you doing?”  My surgeon asked again.

“I'm trying to insert the tubes to monitor her blood pressure closer during her procedure.”  Joe seemed nervous and was already moving to dress the new failed attempt.

“Who ordered that?” My surgeon, Dr. Causte, moved closer into the room.

“The anesthesiology team.”  All of us stared at the bloody gauze that was laying open on my bed as Joe continued to hold pressure on the area he was previously working.  “I'll try one more spot.”

“No.”  Dr. Causte said very sternly.  “Joe, clean up what you've done and I'll talk to Susan about this.”  I glanced at Joe as I saw him grimace.  “I think two failed attempts are enough suffering for Rhiannon.  After all, we have a big procedure to get through together.”  He stepped toward me, throwing me a kind smile, and patting my covered feet with his hands.

Joe finished bandaging my wrist under the watchful gaze of my surgeon.  I was then instructed to try peeing for the last time as the surgery would be a few hours long.  I felt like a child being dismissed by a parent before starting a long car ride.  Once I returned, Joe was gone and two women were now milling around my bed talking to Dr. Causte.

“Rhiannon,” Dr. Causte helped me into my bed and popped the side rail in place.  “Mary and Stacy are going to escort you to the operating room from here.”  He paused to turn a smile to both of the ladies in the room.  Dr. Causte's face was no longer red and his eyes held nothing but compassion.  His calmness immediately soothed out the rough edges that I hadn't been able to quiet within myself since the failed procedure attempts.  “Now, Rhiannon, as you know today is a big day!  Today, we are going to evict that nasty cancer that seems to think it could squat in your body.  Today we win!”  His smile was contagious and continued to put me at ease.

He soon left with a promise to see me in a few minutes.   Mary and Stacy pushed me toward the surgery room while asking me random questions designed to get my mind off where we were heading.  I indulged them and lived in that fantasy for a few moments.  It felt good to laugh again.  Not just a chuckle, but laughing out loud at a joke.    Laughing always made me feel lighter.

The operating room was cold.  Not just cold, but like morgue cold.  I never truly understood why we needed a room that cold for the living, but I'm sure it has its purpose.  I was greeted by two new techs who keep calling me sweetie and smiling at me.  At this point, everyone is pushing me on to the next activity because no one wanted to allow me a chance to look around too long.  I was asked to “shuffle” from my current bed onto the new bed stationed in the center of the room.  The way everything is starting to blur together I swear they've given me something already, but I keep trying to focus on what people are saying, the questions being asked, and exactly what is happening to me.  One of the techs asked me to tilt my head back as far as possible.  Next, each of the techs asked me to stretch my arms out to my sides at shoulder height.  When I do this, suddenly I feel boards under my arms.  I can feel them securing my arms and I think I should be freaking out right now, but I really don't have the strength or the care to panic.  The man tech leans his head closer to mine and tells me to relax.  I smile up at the ceiling and chuckle because I'd hate to see what he'd say if he could see me panicking.

Suddenly, a thought chills me to the bone.  I'm strung out on the table like Jesus is on the cross.  I'm not sure why this thought comes racing through at this moment.  It has been forever since I've believed in “Jesus” and even longer since my belief system resembled anything remotely Christian.  But in this one moment, I think of myself like a Jesus in my own life.  I have to sacrifice something vital to me, in order to save myself.  It is in that moment, surrounded by the hum of techs entering the room, on the verge of the biggest surgery/event of my life, and I am alone.  In this moment, Val doesn't matter.  In this moment none of my friends matter, none of my family, no one.

The same male tech leans back over and puts his lips near my ear.  “Rhiannon, can you hear me?”  I jerk my head toward him as his voice breaks the last of the blur surrounding me.  “I need you to lean your head back as far as you can.”  I do as he asked.  “Excellent!  I'm now going to fasten a strap over your forehead to help you keep your head there.  Okay?”


I try to answer, but my mouth feels like it is full of cotton.  I lick my lips slowly and try to swallow.  It feels like every action is slowed and over-exaggerated.  “Yeah,” I finally managed to squeak out.  I feel the cold strap settle over my forehead, panic begins to consume me as everything within me screams to get up and run from this room, and suddenly it is almost impossible to draw any air into my lungs.

The same male tech's voice speaks softly directly into my ear.  “Rhiannon, just breath.  I know you are scared right now, but we have you.  We have you, so don't worry.”

Coolness slowly replaced the heat his breath made upon my ear.  I heard a female talking to me, but I couldn't really make out her words as everything seemed to buzz together at once.  Then I had a padded something over my mouth.  I tried to move away from it, but the strap over my forehead prevented me from moving and I froze.  Someone above me yelled my name and told me to breathe.  My lungs are on fire.  Suddenly I gulp in a large gasp of cold air that tastes off.  The room suddenly disappears, while whiteness and fog surround me.




Chapter 5 – Waiting Game


The numbers and letters were jumbling together on the page and I cursed at myself because I couldn't force everything to make sense.  Inventory was supposed to be my relief; the thing I turned to when nothing else was making sense.  Inventory helped me to shut down everything and allow me to focus on the monotony of putting numbers with words.  Any other day, it would work, but today I couldn't make myself focus.  My mind would not shut off, which meant it was stuck thinking about Rhiannon.  The first few times that I caught myself going back to replay her visits to the shop I was able to deny what it meant.  A few months into her sporadic visits and I couldn't deny why I was replaying everything, but that didn't mean that it didn't frustrate me.  Just thinking about her brings a smile to my face and then I blush because I become embarrassed about where my thoughts take me and pray that no one know exactly what I'm thinking about or who.

I met Rhiannon over a year ago.  I still remember her first visit to the shop.  Our interaction was limited that day, but I knew the moment she stepped to the counter that I was in trouble.  I had noticed her when she first got in line that day.  Her skin coloring intrigued me, but it was her presence that drew me in.  She was just one of those people that demanded you take notice of her because her presence filled the room immediately.  But she didn't act like she was aware what she did to others.  I initially thought that it was just me, but I noticed others immediately take notice of her.  She wasn't the prettiest woman to ever come order coffee, but she definitely wasn't ugly.  She had darker brown hair and stood taller and wider than most women.  In fact, she almost resembled a man by her size alone.  Her shoulders were wide and her athletic body seemed to shoot straight down to her legs.  She didn't have all the curves that a normal woman would have, but somehow her body seemed to match her presence, it suggested that she was strong.  I have never met another person that filled a room so quickly, but those that had come close usually were arrogant.

She stepped closer and I stepped closer to the counter to get a closer look and overhear how this mountain of a woman treated others.  She was still looking at the menu and I could tell her eyes were a light brown, but nothing prepared for when her attention centered on me.  Her eyes met with Brigit first, and then flicked to me.  I found myself captured by eyes that were light brown, but had yellow highlights throughout, so the coloring seemed almost dark yellow in appearance. It wasn't the coloring that made breathing difficult, it was the life that danced within her eyes.  Then she threw out a smile that drew your own lips to a smile of greeting before you even knew what was happening.  She wasn't arrogant.  In fact, she openly showed a vulnerability that surprised me, but it was her happiness that radiated from her that infected everyone around her.  She spoke with a slight southern twang with certain words, but then would hit a northern accent on others, which kept a person off-balance around her.  She looked people in the eye when she spoke and her actions seemed deliberate when she moved.  My one pet-peeve was that people rarely looked me in the eye.  I never knew if it was because I was in the food industry, if it is because I'm a woman, if it is because I'm a woman with mixed heritage, or if it was just the social norm.  I was always taught that it is a sign of respect when a person took the time to hold your eye for a moment while speaking.  Rhiannon barely looked down, or away, when she was speaking to someone.  When she left that day, she gingerly took her drink from my hand, broadened her smile at me, and then wished me a good day.  I remained glued to my spot as I watched her walk away and back toward the rest of the hospital.

As she returned to the shop for coffee, I would catch myself looking for her every day.  And once I began noticing her pattern, then I began thinking about what I should wear every day until she would appear.  It was her second visit that we began talking.  At first it was at the end of the counter and it always ended with me wishing I could drag out the conversation longer.  She also seemed to linger at the end of a visit, so I let myself believe that we both enjoyed the other's presence.  Then it progressed to sitting at a table for an hour or more chatting when she visited.  I kept wanting Rhiannon to ask me out or ask to see me outside of the coffee shop, but she never asked.  In those first six months I tried everything I knew to do to convey how much I liked her without crossing any lines that you couldn't uncross.  After all, I didn't want to lose her friendship either.  After those six months, I gave up trying to send the signals and just enjoyed what time we had together.

“You know you aren't foolin' anyone with that book.”  Brigit leaned against the back counter beside me.

“Oh, really?”  I asked.  I didn't bother looking up because of all of my employees, Brigit seemed to get me the most.

“You are still thinking about her.”  It wasn't a question, but the tone didn't apply strictly a statement.  Brigit was the only one that knew how I felt for Rhiannon because she was the one that was around the most when Rhiannon came by.  All my other employees just thought she was an old friend that stopped by.  Of course, I was the boss, so no one really questioned me about it.  No one but Brigit.  I remained silent.  “Astrid, when are you going to ask her out?  You know that she's really into you.”

“I do not.”  This was the same argument we'd had for quite a while.

“How do you not know?”  Her voice got higher with her disbelief.  I glared at her.  “She comes in here to see you.  When you aren't out here when she stops by she looks for you immediately and nervously asks if you are around.  The hopeful look on her face when she asks is all kinds of adorbs.  But it is really obvious when she first sees you.  She gets this dopey grin on her face and her eyes shine even brighter.  Come on! You have to notice this stuff!”

“You know I don't.”  I said quietly. And it was true, I had never seen her dopey grin or her eyes be more animated than they ever were.  If I had, then maybe I'd take the chance and ask her out myself.

“Well, she does.”  Brigit then moved on to the front counter to continue working.

I continued to not look through the inventory book that I needed to be going through.  Today, as I thought about Rhiannon, my thoughts weren't as cheery.  Because with thoughts of Rhiannon, came thoughts about her .  Rhiannon had never brought another person with her to the shop in all the time she's been coming around.  She has never mentioned a girlfriend or partner.  But, maybe the Rhiannon was into blondes.  Maybe that is why she never seemed interested in me beyond friends.  The blonde that accompanied her yesterday was definitely someone she knew very well.  Their actions together and familiarity screamed intimacy and I instantly hated the blonde.  I'm not naïve, so I knew it was jealousy the minute I became aware of blonde.  However, I tried to remain respectful and friendly.  I just chose to concentrate on Rhiannon more than the guest with her.

“Boss,” Brigit leaned toward me and broke my train of thought.  I looked up at her.  “Rhiannon's friend just walked in.”

The words ran through me like ice.  I closed my book and faced the counter almost the same time as the blonde did.  I will give Rhiannon credit, the lady was pretty.  Her long, blonde hair was gathered at her neck in a loose pony tail and her green eyes were staring straight at me.  She wasn't dressed in anything more than a faded pair of jeans and a tee-shirt, but the woman definitely wore the clothes and not the other way around.  The clothes were just tight enough to tease the eyes with what was lying in wait under them.

“Hi.”  The blonde flashed her a small smile and laid her belongings on the counter in front of me as she bypassed Brigit all-together.

“Good Afternoon.”  I made brief eye contact and then immediately began looking around to see if Rhiannon was on her way, but I didn't see her.  “Rhiannon isn't with you today?”  I wanted to take back the words even before I finished saying them. Now she would definitely know how I felt about Rhiannon.

“Not today.”  The woman flashed me another knowing smile and my heart sank.  Yep, she knew alright.  “Listen, I wanted to come by and introduce myself since Rhiannon forgot to yesterday.”  Yep, here it come, the “she's mine” speech.  She held her hand out to me.  “I'm Valarie Burke.  I'm Rhiannon's best friend since we were just starting elementary school.”

“Oh.” The word slipped out in surprise as I grasped Valarie's hand in a firm hand-shake.  Suddenly, I felt like I needed to make an impression with this woman instead of hate her.  “Well, it is nice to meet you Valarie Burke.  I'm Astrid Connor.  I own this small establishment.”

“That's what I hear.”  She released my hand, but didn't look away.  “I also hear, and can now attest, that you have the best coffee.”

“Well, I am pleased.” I am pleased ?  What the hell, why won't my mouth work right.  I clamped down on those thoughts so I wouldn't blush out of embarrassment.  “I'm glad that you enjoyed your first drink.”

“It was excellent!”  My attention swayed from conversation and landed on a red circular device that was lighting up and faintly buzzing.  Soon her eyes traveled to where mine were glued and my stomach twisted.  I knew exactly what that device meant as I had several customers that carried them around on a daily basis.  “Shit!”  The word thrown out accompanied wild movements as Valarie frantically looked around the lobby.

I had already sprang into action and grabbed the cordless phone off the back counter.  “Here.”  I said, but the woman didn't seem to hear me.  I leaned over the counter and put my hand on the woman's shoulder to garner her attention.  I then thrust the phone into her hands, “Here.”

I watched as Valarie dialed the phone with shaking hands.  She had the phone pressed to her ear firmly and the hand holding it had turned a sickly white that matched the coloring of her face.  I wanted to give her privacy, but something held me glued to the spot at the counter. I heard Valarie state, “I'm calling to retrieve a message about a family member.”  My stomach sank even deeper into itself and twisted tighter.   I continued to stare at Valarie, much like a person can't look away from a gruesome wreck.  Valarie suddenly was staring back at me with widened eyes and an uneasy look on her face.  I knew immediately that she realized that her next words would confirm what I had already deduced.  “The patient is Rhiannon MacReynolds.”  Even though I knew the words were coming, I didn't realize how much of an impact they would have.  I felt my lungs cease breathing and my legs felt like they were going to give out on me any moment.  I curled my fingers into the counter hoping that my grip could steady me.

It felt like only moments later, but must have been at least a few minutes, the phone was set down in my line of vision, which was right between my hands on the counter.  “Thank you for the use of your phone.”  Valarie's voice sounded steadier, but there was a hesitancy to it.  I slowly raised my head and made eye-contact with Valarie.

“Rhiannon is in surgery?”  I was afraid to ask, but this was too important to make assumptions.  No, I wanted….no, I needed to know the truth.

“Yes.”  Her voice was quiet as well.  I never knew one word could hold so much meaning and could weigh so heavily.  I needed to know more.  I needed answers and I'd have to go through Valarie to get them.

“Valarie, do you have a few minutes to sit and chat?”  I asked with more confidence than I felt.

“Yeah, I should have about an hour.”  She began retrieving her purse from the counter.

“If you want to choose a seat, then I will fix you a drink and be right out.”  I turned to busy myself with a drink order.  I needed this moment to finish gathering myself.  Regardless of how I feel about Rhiannon, both she and Valarie need a friend right now.  Surgery isn't just some minor thing to take lightly.  Yes, most people come out of surgery fine as medicine has progressed steadily in the last twenty years, but there are just some things that science can't predict or correct.

Valarie chose a table near the side of the room near the windows.  The table was perfect as it was out of the way of traffic, so it could offer some privacy, but it was still close enough to the counter that the phone would remain in contact with its base.  Valarie looked really nervous and for a moment I thought maybe I shouldn't ask her to give me details about Rhiannon.  But, that thought immediately left as I knew I needed to know she was okay.  Plus, Valarie seemed like a very strong and confident woman, so her nervousness reinforced my need for details.  I walked over slowly to the small table and sat down her drink and the phone in front of her.  Valarie mouthed thank you to me as she pulled her coffee closer to her, grasping it with both hands.  I eased into the chair directly across from her and searched for a way to start the conversation.  However, gauging my conversation with Valarie earlier and that I needed answers now, I decided to just dive in with both feet.  “Is she okay?”

Valarie's voice seemed to match mine in tone.  “She will be eventually.”  Tears immediately burned in my eyes and I snapped my eye lids shut to keep them from spilling over.  Eventually.  That doesn't sound horrible, but it was a far stretch from fine.  “Listen, Astrid, I think it is time to have some very frank words between the two of us.”  Her words shocked me, but I nodded my understanding.  “I can tell that you like her.”

And just like that the elephant in the room stepped into plain sight.  Although her straight-forwardness shocked me, it was also a relief.  A very large part of me wanted to deny my feelings toward Rhiannon, but admitting them seemed to offer a freedom that I hadn't felt yet.  My head nodded before my voice could croak out the answer, “Yes.”  I could feel the blush rushing up to my cheeks and ears, but I was helpless to stop it.

“Okay, well at least that means I haven't lost my touch. So, let's have a discussion about why she is in surgery today.  Okay?”



“Are you going to be okay sitting out here to talk?  Is there somewhere else you'd like to go?”

“No, here is fine.  The phone doesn't always recognize the base when I head back to my office.  Maintenance says it has to do with the metal reinforcements for the building.  I want to make sure that you are near a phone if you need to call again.”

“Okay.”  She leaned slightly toward me.  “I don't know any way to break this easily or painlessly, so I'm just going to put it all out there and then you can ask me whatever questions you need to.  Okay?”  I nodded.  “Astrid, Rhi is in surgery to remove her thyroid.  She found out a couple of weeks ago that she has thyroid cancer.”  Ca….cancer?  My heart ceased to beat and my lungs seized.  I clinched my fists tightly.  Rhiannon has cancer? Valarie continued, “Taking the thyroid is the first step, but they will probably have to do some sort of radiation.  They tell her that she will beat it all and that the treatment will work.”

I suddenly remembered seeing Rhiannon about three weeks ago.  She came to the counter and I immediately had to school my expression.



“Pip!”  Rhiannon said boisterously in greeting me, followed by a very large smile.


“Rhiannon.”  I quickly covered my mouth and looked down while trying to hold in a chuckle.


 “Do I have food on me  again?”  I glanced up and found Rhiannon inspecting her clothing.  Rhiannon was never short of dressing impeccably, so I chuckled at her reference. Truth be told, the woman probably had spare shirts in her car for just the occasion.


“Nope.  Not today.”  I glanced back at Rhiannon's neck while she finished checking herself over and ordered her drink.  I fought the jealousy that raised its green head.  Rhiannon was sporting two bruises on her neck that looked suspiciously like hickeys.


“So, what is so funny?”  She appeared back in front of me with her coffee in hand.


“You really don't know?”  It was hard to imagine Rhiannon not knowing that she was sporting hickeys.  She always paid attention to her appearance.  Her clothes were hardly ever wrinkled and she never had a hair out of place.


“No.  I guess not.”  She was becoming serious and her nervousness began to rise.


I took her hand and led her to my office.  Once we got there, I retrieved my hand-held mirror and handed it to her.  She still looked puzzled, so I pointed to her neck area.  As she located the spots, her eyes grew wide.  “Did one of your ladies get a little too hungry?”  The moment the words left my mouth I turned 3 different shades of red, but still chuckled as I saw a steady blush rising on her neck and face.


“You know me…..irresistible to all!”  We both chuckled at her joke to get over the awkwardness of the topic.


She went on to explain about the biopsy and that it had caused bruising.  We ended the encounter with a hug, her assuring me that this was a routine check, and that everything would be fine.


“They found this when they did the biopsy?”  Val nodded and I chuckled slightly.  “She told me it was routine to check on a nodule or something.  I had made a comment that one of her ladies had gotten a little too zealous because her neck had bruises that looked like hickeys.”

Val laughed boisterously at the comment.  “Oh my!  Things are starting to make more sense.” I gave Val a questioning look.  “I thought Rhi was losing her mind one day.  She texted me out of the blue and said she needed to go make-up shopping.  I asked why and she said she had some hickeys to cover.”  She continued to laugh some.  “Since I KNEW she wasn't sporting any hickeys, I passed it off to auto-correct messing with her again.”

We both chuckled for a few seconds, but then the seriousness of the situation started to sink in more.  “Now I feel bad for teasing her that day.”

“Don't feel bad.  She would have teased you had the tables been turned.”  Val flashed a large smile.

“So, surgery is today. Well, right now.”  Val nodded.  “Will she be in the hospital long?”

“Not that we are aware.  They may keep her tonight, but it all depends on when her surgery is done and how close that is to quitting time for the day surgery group.”

“What does she need?”  The words ran together in my mind and I tried to push away the jumble so I could think clearly.

“Friends.  Support.”  Val met my eyes, “you.”

I quickly get up, motioning for Val to remain at the table.  I walk briskly to my office and extract a business card from my desk.  I flip the card over and scribble my cell on the back.  When I return to the table I hand the card to Val.  “My personal cell is on the back.”  I struggle to find how to convey to Val what I need her to do, what I need to know.  How do you tell someone's best friend to include you in the must notify group when that person doesn't even have your cell number.

“I'll keep you updated.”  She enters the numbers into her phone and then slips the card into her purse.  “I'll also let you give your number to Rhi yourself.”  She smiles slightly.  “Just because I can see how much both of you like each other from a mile away, doesn't mean that I am a match-maker service.  However,” she reaches out and grabs my arm gently.  “I need you to really think about all of this. Not just today, but what tomorrow will bring, or next week, or next month, or hell next year.  Yes, the doctor's say Rhi will beat this, but that doesn't mean that she's not going to be walking through hell.  You need to make sure you can handle that walk before you pursue Rhi.  I can guarantee she's worth that walk ten times over, but the last thing she needs is heartache on top of it all.  Do you understand?”

I nod.



Well, that went better than I thought it would. That wasn't quite the way I wanted her to learn about Rhi, but she needs to know.  Something tells me that Astrid doesn't give in easily, which means that she's tenacious enough to put up with Rhi's crap.  And being the sister, I had to make sure that my initial read of this woman was correct.  Now, if only getting through the rest of this day could be as easy as that talk!

I returned to the family waiting room and took a seat. I looked around at the other individuals in the waiting room before sitting back in my chair and staring back at the floor.  Everyone in this room had the same look.  At first glance one would think everyone here was just bored, but really the nervous energy in the room was thick. Occasionally, someone would look up and glance around the room, but eventually would return their eyes to the floor, out the window, or to the muted television that hung in the corner that was playing Jerry Springer.  I barely caught my laughter from spilling out as watched the headlines from the TV.  These people were going onto a national television show to make-believe these issues about their girlfriend sleeping with their mom or their boyfriend preferring the company of their sister while the people in this room faced real life problems.  Maybe that is why they were streaming the program, so it could provide comedy relief in the middle of your own personal hell.

As we neared the one hour mark, my concentration was broken by a nurse hurrying into the room.  The nurse looked tired as she approached the information desk, but still seemed to be in a hurry.  Soon I heard the overhead page for the family of Rhiannon to come to the information desk.  I quickly stood, which drew the attention of the nurse.  I looked eyes with her and refused to look away.  Her first greeting was a smile, but I couldn't shake that she looked tired and seemed to be in a rush.  As I neared she took a few steps toward me.

“Are you the family here with Rhiannon today?”

“Yes, ma'am.  I am Valarie, her sister.”  The nurse reached out and touched my shoulder in comfort and I felt my heart drop into my stomach.  This didn't feel right.

“Why don't we go over here and talk about Rhiannon's surgery.”  I let her lead me without any resistance.  I could feel the attention we garnered and the sympathy behind some of the gazes.  I sat down in the seat I had just vacated as the nurse sat in the one beside me.  I wanted to ask a million questions, but knew I needed to let the nurse talk, so I remained quiet.  “Rhiannon's surgery is taking longer than we expected.  The doctor has ran into a few complications, but nothing that we need to worry about at this time.  Rhiannon is doing great in the surgery, so don't worry about that right now.”

“Complications?”  She paused, so I had to ask.

“Yes.  I can't give specifics because I'm not the doctor.  But the complications he ran into just require that the clean-up process of making sure he has all of the thyroid tissue he can get a little more time consuming.”  I just nodded to the information.  Dr. Causte had said that he'd have to scrape the vocal cords and other areas in the throat to make sure he got all of the tissue, so this wasn't new news.  “Dr. Causte doesn't want to estimate how long the surgery will take from here, but probably another hour.  He did state that he will want to keep her overnight for observation since this will put her coming out of anesthesia so late in the evening.”

“Okay.  That's not a problem.  We came prepared for an overnight stay.  Will I be able to stay with her?”

“Definitely.  There will be a chair in the room and if a cot is available, they can bring one of those in for you.”  I nod.  “Do you have other questions about this time?”

“No.”  I really didn't know what else to ask.

“Okay.  We will still update you when she's out of surgery and then when she begins to wake up so you can see her.  Just keep your pager on you and in this room as much as you can.”

“Thank you for updating me.”

The nurse left and I fell back into my chair and continued to start at the floor.  Okay, this does not mean anything is really wrong.  It is just a minor set-back and the doctor is working extra hard to make sure he gets as much of the thyroid tissue as he can.  I let out a large exhale and pulled out my phone.  I'd text Astrid to let her know what is going on.  At least it would kill some time while waiting.

Val:   This is Val.  Rhi will be in surgery longer, but I will let you know when she's out.

Astrid:   Thank you for letting me know.  Were there complications?

Val:   The nurse said that it is taking longer because the doctor wants to get as much thyroid tissue as he can before finishing.

Astrid:   That makes sense.  Are you okay?

Val:   I think so, but thanks for asking.

Rhi did a great job of latching onto this one.  All of our friends know how close Rhi and I are, hell they tease us that we are an item, but not one of them has asked how I am.  Hell, not one of them have texted about her at all today.  I guess they are waiting for me to update them.

Ayden:   How's Rhi?

Val:   Funny you should ask.  The nurse just informed me that it will be a while yet.  The doc is taking longer to scrape out the tissue.  I think it is a good thing, but it still isn't setting right with me.

Ayden:   Wow….maybe it is good?  Less remaining tissue means less cancer right?

Val:   Logically yes.

Ayden:   You okay, Babe?  Want me to call?  I just thought texting would be easier for you.

Val:   No, I don't want to leave the waiting room if I don't have to.  Sorry, I just feel like something is wrong.  I don't have any reason to feel that way, I just do.

Ayden:   I wish I could be there with you!  I'm sorry that you are worried, but Rhi is strong.  She'll pull through.

Val:   Yeah.  I know she will.

Ayden:   Is there anything I can do from here?

Val:   Kiss the kids good night for me and send me loving thoughts.  The nurse already told me that they are going to keep Rhi overnight.  So, we won't be heading back to her house until tomorrow morning.  I won't know more until she's out and I talk to the doctor.

Ayden:   Kisses and loving thoughts….done.  Once you know how she did, then we'll be able to come up with a game plan.  Don't worry about us or here, we will be fine.  Just concentrate on helping Rhi.

Val: You are the best man ever.  Have I told you that lately?  Thank you for being so understanding about this and my time away from home.  I love you.

Ayden:   Babe, this isn't a stranger you're helping.  It's Rhi and she's family.  Why would I be upset that you are helping family?  I want to be there to help as well, but I'll send my loving vibes to both of you.  I love you too, Val.

Val:   I'll check back in later.

I vigorously rub my face to stop the tears from welling up further in my eyes.  I miss my husband and the kids.  Don't get me wrong, I am exactly where I need to be right now, but this is the second week without them.  Hopefully, they can visit soon.  Alex and Ryan were devastated when Ayden told them about Rhiannon's diagnosis and that I'd be staying with Rhi for a bit.  Both of the kids swore that they needed to be there to help Rhi as well.  They could kiss her booboos and help her watch all the movies that made her happy.   Just thinking of them and their time with Rhi makes me want to cry again. My kids have connected with Rhi in a way none of us ever thought they would.  And just as much as we see Alex and Ryan taking on characteristics of Ayden and I, they also are Rhi too.





“Alex, why do you have a towel wrapped around your head?” I heard Ayden ask from the family room as I finished loading the dishwasher with Ryan's help.

“It's NOT a towel, Dad!” Alex answered her father in a very definite tone.

“Then what is it?” Ayden asked without missing a beat.

“It's my head dress.”

“Head dress, huh?” Alex nodded while fighting to keep the towel in place. “Why are you wearing a headdress?”

“'Cause she's Chief, Dad!” Ryan joined in this time as he joined his sister in the livingroom.


“Uh-huh.” Both kids said together. They sat down in the floor and started to drag out their Legos to play. I joined Ayden on the couch to watch television.

“Alex, shouldn't Ryan be Chief?” I looked at Ayden with a scowl. He lifted a finger down by me lap and winked in my direction so I wouldn't interfere.

“Why? Alex is Chief.” He looked up confused at Ayden.

“Well, I just mean, you are the man. Shouldn't a man be a Chief?”

“Aunt Rhi says that being Chief has nothing to do with if you are a boy or a girl.” He says it so nonchalant and goes back to building something with his Legos.

“So, you accept Alex as your Chief?”

“Yep! As long as she is good.”

“What makes a good Chief?”

“Aunt Rhi says that a good Chief is fair, just, kind, honest, patient, and wants the best for the tribe.” His words warm my heart. Rhi has never hid her heritage from the twins, but I've never heard them have this kind of conversation.

“Alex,” Ayden catches our daughter's attention and doesn't continue until she looks at him. “You are a beautiful Chief.” Her face lights up and she smiles.

“You can stay in the Tribe, Dad.” She turns back to the Legos and helping Alex to build something that looked like Picasso himself designed.

We both chuckle at her words and I settle back into Ayden's embrace. I look back over at Alex and she's concentrating so hard on what they are building and her face is scrunched just like Rhi's when she's concentrating on something. For not having Rhi's actual blood in her as her Aunt, she seems every bit like Rhi when she was that age.





I lean my head back against the wall behind me and close my eyes for a minute, trying to will the tears from my eyes.  I have to keep it together, well, at least until I can get Rhi home and have a moment to relax.  Falling apart while she's in surgery is not an option.  I began to consciously clear my mind and tried to get myself into a more meditation state.  Rhi swears by meditation.  I've always argued that my mind won't shut up long enough to meditate.

“Miss?”  I shoot up as someone comes to stand in front of me.  I instantly recognize one of the helpers at the information desk.

“Yes?”  I ask trying to get my heart contained back into my chest.  I must have relaxed more than I thought I had.

“You are the family of MacReynolds?”  The older lady asked with kindness in her eyes.


“You have a call at the desk.”  I jump to my feet and follow her back to the information desk.

“Thank you.” I say as she hands me the handset. “Hello?”

“Is this Rhiannon's family?”  I instantly recognize the nurse's voice from earlier.

“Yes.  Is she okay?”  I clamp a hand over my mouth as I swore I wasn't going to blurt stuff like that out and listen when the medical staff spoke.

“Yes, ma'am.  I was just calling to let you know that the clean-up is still taking longer than Dr. Causte anticipated.  We are still looking at about an hour of surgery, possibly more. However, Rhiannon is handling the surgery well so far.  We probably will not check back in with you unless we see significant delays.  We should be finishing within the next hour to hour and a half.”

“Oh, okay.”  I take a breath and close my eyes.  She's fine I remind myself.

“Do you have any other questions?”

“No, but thank you for the update.”  With that I hand the phone back to the information lady, thank her again, and walk back over to what I've deemed my chair.

More time.  What could be requiring that kind of clean-up work?  Dr. Causte explained the surgery in many details when we were in his office.  He basically said he would cut out the thyroid, check the neck cavity and surrounding areas, but away any thyroid material that was still attached, but then irrigate the area to wash out any remaining tissue.  He said the more tissue he removed, then the less radiation would be needed.  I guess he's just being extra careful and I'm sure he's not keeping her under any longer than he deems necessary.  I take another deep breath and forcibly exhale trying to blow out some of the anxiety and tension.  I grab my phone out of my purse and decide it is time to update Ayden and Astrid.

Val:   So, I just go an update on Rhi.  The clean-up of tissue is taking longer than Dr. Causte thought, so it will be another hour to hour and a half.  I shouldn't have any other updates until she's out.

Ayden: Wow, clean-up is taking a while on this one.  I'm sure that just means he's being very cautious.  Did they say how Rhi was doing?

Val:   They said she was doing well and was handling the surgery well.

Ayden:   Good.  You still doing okay?

Val:    Yeah.  I will be.  Nothing that getting her home, have a hot shower, and some rest won't cure.  Something tells me that it will be a long night.

Ayden:   Do I need to pack up the kids and head that way.  I can be there to drive you both home in the morning.

Val:   No.  We will manage.  But thank you for offering, babe.  I love you.

Ayden:   I love you too.  Let me know if there is anything I can do from here.

Val:   I will.  Take care of the kids.

Now time to let Astrid know.  She's not going to like that Rhi's surgery is taking longer.

Val: Rhi's still in surgery and will be for another hour to hour in a half.  They say that it is taking longer because there is more clean-up to do than normal.  They've assured me that Rhi is doing okay.  I just wanted to let you know.  I'll text after I know more.


I sit back and try to clear my mind.  I'm restless, which hasn't happened in a long time.  I breathe in deep and try to center myself, just like Rhi taught me years ago.  I push thoughts out of my mind and try to feel earth. I try to feel the energy of earth and let it cement my feet more into the floor.  





“Are you going to walk a whole in the carpet?” I hear Rhi question me, but I refuse to pay her any attention. “I really to do like this carpet.” Still I ignore her. All I can do is think about everything going on and everything that is riding on the next few months. “Val.” I abruptly am stopped by running into a solid surface and only after I stumble slightly do I register hands on my shoulders to steady me.


“Rhi, please, I am trying to work this out in my head.” I try to walk around her to continue my pacing. I can't seem to think about anything, but if I stop moving the panic threatens to overtake me.


“Come.” That is all the warning I have before Rhi takes my head and is heading outside. I pull her back and try to fight as I need to stay doing what I was so I can try to think.


Next thing I know I am staring at the floor, Rhi's ass, and her bare feet moving. I know better than to fight her because I've never been able to over-power her. I just allow her to carry me through the house. I watch the carpet of my room give way to the hall and kitchen hardwood floors. I hear my father's surprised noise give away to small chuckles as we pass by the livingroom and I hear the porch door opening moments before feeling the heart of the late afternoon sun surround us. I watch the wood decking of the porch, give way to gravel, and eventually lush grass. Then my world is righting and my feet sink into the cool grass under the large oak tree that is in the northern part of our yard. Rhi loves this tree.


“No.” Rhi states gently as I open my mouth to start asking questions and to protest her carrying me out of the house like that. Her quiet forcefulness is enough to snap my mouth shut and I look up into her eyes searching for why we are here. She simply smiles while grasping my hands. “Do you trust me, Val?”


“Yes.” I don't hesitate. I trust Rhi without any doubts.


“Okay. I need you to stay quiet and just follow my directions without thinking about them. Okay?” I just nod. “Close your eyes.” I do. “You are in a safe place, Val. No one can hurt you here. Now, I want you to take a moment to feel you. Feel the chaos of energy bouncing around within you. Take a moment to feel the crazy inside.” I can feel it and I just want to move. I want to start pacing. “Now, I want you to feel like all of the weight in your body is settling down into your feet. As it pools there begin to feel it passing through your feet and into the ground.” My head seems to be lighter and my feet feel like they are concrete slabs. “Now imagine that the earth is drawing your feet further into her. Like you are connected.” This is new feelings and I'm trying to stay in the now of it. “Now, release the remaining crazy through your feet and into the earth. Feel grounded, connected, let Earth replace your energy with the calm.” I don't say anything, but just slowly open my eyes in surprise when the insanity I was feeling before is now gone. I can think and I don't feel the need to move. I stare into Rhi's eyes and I know she can see my surprise. “Congrats, Val. You have grounded for the first time. Use this technique when you need to quiet yourself to help make peace within.”





I suddenly feel my body relax and the calmness spread throughout me. I then let out my held breath in one long, slow stream of air to push out the unease and let my body relax into its new centered calm.  I'm not normally a praying person, but I also take a moment to plead to any and all deities to take care of Rhi.  Before I reopen my eyes, I can feel someone standing near me, only moments before the scent of coffee invades my senses.


“That smells divine!”  I exclaim and open my eyes to find Astrid holding out a cup of hot coffee to me.  “Thank you.  How did you know this is what I needed?”


“Well, after your text, I figured it will be a long night for you and figured you might need some help to get ready for it.”  She smiles at me and seems almost uneasy.  “Um, do you mind if I sit with you for a while?”


“Please, I could use the company.”  I pause to take a sip of my coffee and I swear that I almost moan in delight.  “I swear you put crack in your coffee!  I have never had something be so good.  I would ask you your secret, but I don't want to die today.”  We both laugh and it seems to break the silence.


“Rhi tells me the same thing.  I swear that I don't do anything special to it.  But, I am glad that you enjoy it so much.”  She takes a sip of her own cup of coffee and turns toward me in her chair.  The surgical waiting room only has a few clusters of people waiting now, so we are almost alone in the large room.  “Do you mind if I ask what you were doing when I walked up?”


“Not at all.  I was trying to center myself to help my mind and body relax from the stress.  Rhi taught it to me years ago when I'd stress about tests or life.”


“She learned it through her culture?”


“I'm guessing that you and Rhi have not discussed religion very much.”  She shakes her head in confirmation.  “What has she told you?”


“I know she is Native American and Irish. I know she follows a mix of old religion, which is pagan based.  She didn't really tell me much more than that. She seemed timid to discuss it, so I never pushed for more information. “


“Does what she told you bother you?” I want to gauge where Astrid is on the religion comfortability scale. It is a rarity to find someone that understands that there is a legit religion outside of American Christianity, which is why Rhi rarely talks about her faith.


“Why would it bother me?” Astrid seemed genuinely confused.


“Most people believe in Christianity only and believe that any other religions are blasphemous.” I take another sip of coffee. “So, you really don't have an issue with religions or hang ups?”


“Well, I've already talked about this some with Rhi, and I'm sure it will come up more in the future. However, I wasn't really raised in the church. My parents believe in God and I guess you could say that they follow the Christian path, but I was really raised that regardless of religion you needed to be a good person. So, I was raised with more emphasis on recognizing the differences of others, but also searching for how we are all really alike. It's difficult to explain.” She got flustered and blushed slightly, averting her eyes.


“Kind of like the golden rule of treat others how you want to be treated mixed with love everyone thrown in?” I chuckled when Astrid's surprised eyes darted to me. “Yeah, my father was kind of the same way.”


“How did he take to Rhi teaching you things from her religion?” She asked and then turned serious. “God, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to ask such an intrusive question. You don't have to answer that. In fact, forget I even asked.”


“Astrid, it is fine.” I rushed to cut off her rambling. Yep, I could definitely see why Rhi was smitten with this lady. “Really, it is okay.” I took another sip of coffee to gather my thoughts and think back fondly of time between Rhi, my father, and myself. “My dad was fine with Rhi teaching me stuff like that. In fact, she helped him a few times too and I think he used some of the techniques throughout the rest of his life. Rhi was considered my sister and often my dad forgot that he wasn't biologically Rhi's father too.”


As my mind became lost in the memories of Rhi and my father, our conversation tapered off. We still talked about small things, but Astrid seemed to understand that I needed those moments to remember things and to draw what I needed from the memories. During this time I got to know more about Astrid, but not in a deep way. Her actions, what she smiled at, how she could get lost in her own thoughts for a moment, you know the usual small things you learn about someone when spending time with them. The more I knew, the more I enjoyed her company and the more I hoped that she would take the time to get to know Rhi more. It sounded like they had a solid base built, but they also seemed perfect for each other.


“Valarie Burke?” I looked up at the presence next to me and startled seeing Dr. Causte sinking into a chair next to me. As he sank into the chair with a groan, or maybe it was a moan, he reached up and removed his Rolltide surgical cap.


“Dr. Causte.” I greeted the man with instant anxiousness.


“Rhi is doing great.” He landed a small relieved smile at me and I instantly relaxed. “Do you want to go somewhere to talk about her surgery?”


I followed Dr. Causte's eyes to Astrid. “No, here is fine. This is one of Rhi's close friends and we can discuss her case around her.”


“How are you tonight, Astrid?” Dr. Causte kindly addressed her.


“Dr. Causte, I'm doing well. Thank you for asking.” She answered while straightening herself in her chair. I realized at that moment that most of the hospital staff probably knew Astrid very well as they were regulars for her coffee.


“Valarie,” Dr. Causte turned his tired eyes back to me. “Rhiannon's surgery was difficult. I've been doing thyroid surgeries for over 20 years and I've never seen a thyroid like hers.” He paused and I gripped the arm of my chair tightly. “Her thyroid all but melted in her throat. I don't think it is something any of us were expecting based on the ultrasounds. Regardless, the development meant that I had to spend a lot of time scraping every surface in her throat to make sure I left as little thyroid tissue as possible. As we discussed in my office with Rhiannon, the less tissue remaining means less treatments later. I'm not her Endocrinologist, but I will put in a recommendation to her doctor to proceed with the radiation iodine treatment.” He rubbed his hands over his face and I felt sorry for the man. Her hour and a half surgery had taken almost three and a half hours. “Due to the hour of night and how much I had to do in her throat, I'm going to keep her at the hospital overnight. I just want to make sure we don't run into any other issues and it will help her to come out of the anesthesia fully before you are alone with her. Questions?”


“Um,” I was racking my head trying to let his words sink in and think if I needed to know anything right then. “What's her recovery looking like?”


“Well, it doesn't change much. Her vocal cords are fine. They may be very raw for longer and she might be hoarse or unable to speak for quite a while until they heal. That is just because I had to do so much scraping around and on them. I'm going insist she stays out of work for 2 weeks instead of 1, just so the raw areas from scrapping will have more time to heal.”


“Will she get to go home tomorrow? She'll want to know when she wakes up.”


“Oh yes.” He chuckled. “I know she'll want to know everything when she wakes up, but I'll be back in the morning to discharge her and talk to you both. I want to make sure she is alert when we talk about her medication schedule and restrictions. Plus,” he laid a hand over mine that was still gripping the chair arm in a death grip. “I don't want to keep you any longer. The nurse should be out to take you to her soon and then you'll be heading to a room. Anything else?”


“Nothing that can't wait until tomorrow.” I stood up as he stood. “Thank you, Dr. Causte.” I reached to shake his hand. “Thank you for taking care of Rhiannon today.”


He nodded and walked away with a tired gait. I looked at the clock and cringed when I saw it was after ten at night. I felt like today was the longest day of my life and I knew it wasn't over yet. Somehow, I knew it was going to be a really long night, but tomorrow, we'd be home and able to start healing. Tomorrow would be a better today. However, today Rhiannon fought a great battle and won. That victory was blessing.


“Well, I'll let you get ready to start the rest of your night. I would tell you to give Rhiannon a hug for me, but something tells me she won't remember it.” Astrid stood up with me.


“Thank you for keeping me company, Astrid.” I tried to put all of my emotions into my smile. “And thank you for the crack you pass off as coffee.” We both chuckled at the joke. I moved to engulf the woman in a hug to convey what my smile couldn't. I was truly grateful for her company and kindness on this evening.

“Um,” Astrid seemed a little flustered. “Uh, I'll stop by in the morning with some breakfast for both of you. Just text me once she's awake and asking for food, or when you get hungry. No need to subject yourself to the cafeteria for food. At least I'll know that your bellies are full.”


“You don't have to do that.” I didn't want to put her out and she did have a business to run.


“No, I want to.” She fidgeted some and I could tell there was more, but I was too tired to guess, so I waited. “I'd really like to see Rhiannon before you take her home tomorrow. Breakfast just gives me an excuse to come by.” It was hard to believe that prior to today I was a stranger to Astrid and that unbeknownst to Rhi, the relationship between the two friends advanced by leaps and bounds.


“I'm sure Rhi will love that you want to stop by.” I smiled warmly at the woman. I noticed a nurse approaching the waiting room, so I knew the night adventures would begin soon. “I'll text you in the morning so you know how she is doing. You have my number if you want to check on her before the morning. Thank you again, Astrid.”

To be continued


Return to the Academy