“Dinner’s ready.” Brittany’s voice came from behind them. Ally turned and Jack wanted to kick the tree house as he walked past it and into the house. They took turns at the sink washing up and Jack pulled his T-shirt back on, but not before he’d noticed Ally eyeing him again. She seemed to like what she saw. Oh, man this was so bad.
They sat around Brittany’s small kitchen table eating hamburgers and home-made French fries, and Jack got that beer he’d been wanting. He talked to Sarah about her daycare and the trip they’d taken to the local pool that day, and even though it was surreal if he thought too much about where he was and who he was with, it was nice. Almost a family kind of thing, even with Ally there.
The truth was, Ally was the one who felt most like family. The one he was most comfortable with, the one he wanted to be with more than anyone else. He glanced at her occasionally. She didn’t say much through the meal, but he could tell she was listening intently. She asked Sarah the occasional question, too, laughed and smiled.
The strangest thought shot into his mind, a wish that Ally was Sarah’s mother and the three of them were truly a family. Not that he didn’t like Brittany. They could still be friends, despite their teenage relationship. The reality was - Brittany was Sarah’s mother. She always would be and he’d always have that link to her. But it was Ally he wanted to be the mother of his children.
Pain sliced through him and he set down his beer. This was what his life was going to be. Linked to a woman he didn’t want, by a child to whom he owed it to be the best father he could from the other side of the world, all while wanting a woman he could never have. Jesus, what a fucking dismal future he had to look forward to.
He couldn’t eat any more, pushed the plate away from him.
“Can I have your fries?” Sarah asked him.
“You’re having a hungry day, aren’t you sweetie?” Brittany asked with a little laugh.
“Sure.” He let his daughter take his plate. He swallowed past the golf ball that had materialized in his throat and smiled at her.
When they’d helped Brittany clean up and do the dishes, they all went back outside.
“How much more are you going to do tonight?” Ally asked him.
“I dunno.” The longer he worked here, the less time he had to spend with Ally alone at her place, or deal with packing up his stuff and telling her he was leaving.
He stared at the structure still in pieces. It was going to fill Brittany’s entire tiny yard. Shit. What had he done? Sarah didn’t even want it. “I guess I’ll work a bit longer.”
“Want some help?”
He looked at Ally. “You can hammer nails?”
She gave him a crooked smile. “Probably not. But if there’s anything I can do…”
“Hey, watch this!” Sarah ran over to her swing set and grabbed the two rings again.
They turned back to watch Sarah’s gymnastics. As she struggled to hold herself upside down on her skinny arms, Jack grinned. Then Sarah’s hat fell off, to the ground. And her pony tail went with it.
He stared at the hat on the ground with hair attached to it, his smile fading...my God! How had her hair fallen off? Then he lifted his gaze to Sarah as she righted herself and quickly grabbed for the cap. She was completely bald.
* * *
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Jack growled.
They sat in Brittany’s living room. Sarah had gone to her bedroom after a tearful scene when she’d apologized to her mother for letting her hat with the fake ponytail fall off. Apparently Brittany had told her not to let Jack and Ally see her without her hat. Upset but not angry, Brittany had comforted Sarah, her eyes pleading with Jack for him to wait for an explanation.
“What’s wrong with her?” He rubbed the ache in his chest. Ally sat beside him, once again took hold of his hand, and he clutched it in both his as if it were life support.
“She has leukemia,” Brittany told them. “Acute lymphocytic leukemia.”
“Oh, dear God,” Ally murmured beside him.
“She started having a lot of fevers and then infection. She got bruises all the time and I had no idea how.” Brittany pressed a hand to her stomach. “She felt weak and tired and finally her doctor did some tests that showed she had leukemia.”
“When was this?”
“A couple of years ago. Then she had to have more tests, to see what kind of treatment she needed. She’s had a ton of drugs and chemotherapy, to try to heal the bone marrow. She lost her hair, was throwing up all the time.”
“That’s why she missed so much school,” Jack murmured.
“Yes. And now, she...she needs a bone marrow transplant.” She lifted her eyes and met his and his stomach dropped to his heels.
“Is she...is she dying, Britt?” The words came out almost a whisper.
She nodded, shiny-eyed. “She could die if she doesn’t get the transplant.”
“That’s why you called me,” he said slowly, realization crawling over him. “You want me to donate.”
“I’m n-not a good match. I was hoping that you would b-be.”
Jack closed his eyes as the room spun around him momentarily.
“I’m really sorry to drop this on you out of the blue like this, but she’s my daughter, my b-baby. I’ll do whatever it takes to get her better, and I really hope you feel the same.”
Jack was taking it all in, absorbing it. The burger and fries he’d eaten earlier threatened to come back up. He glanced over at Ally and her glossy eyes shone with concern.
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“I wanted you to get to know her. I thought if I asked you to donate marrow to a total stranger, you’d probably say no. But if you got to know your daughter, got to love her...” She paused, swallowed hard. “I thought you’d do it.”
Jack took a breath. “What all is involved?” he asked. “For me.” God, that sounded selfish. “I mean...”
Brittany nodded. “I know. You have a right to have a lot of questions. I’ll tell you as much as I know, but it would be better if you met with the specialist. He can tell you more and explain it all better than I can.”
“Apparently you have to meet with the transplant team so they can give you information. Then they’ll do some blood tests. That will tell them if you’re a good match or not.” She paused. “I’m really hoping, because there are a lot of factors, and the fact that you’re a man, you’re big, and you’re young, are all good things.”
Jack nodded again.
“If you’re a match, you go into the hospital to donate. They give you an anesthetic and then they take some marrow out of your hip bones. You go home the same day and apparently you might have some back pain for a few days. But that’s really all there is to it.”
“It is a surgical procedure, though,” Jack said. “There are risks.”
Brittany slowly moved her head up and down. “Yes. There are. I don’t mean to minimize it, but I think the risks are pretty small, if you’re healthy. You’d have to have a complete physical before they do it, too, to make sure you are healthy and there aren’t any risks.”
She sat there, looking at him, waiting. Ally squeezed Jack’s hand and her support was all that gave him strength to go on.
“Will you come and talk to the specialist, at least?” Brittany asked quietly. “I know it’s a lot to ask.”
“Of course I will.” Was there any other answer? What was he supposed to do? Let his daughter die? Even though he’d had no idea she existed until a week ago, there was no way he could turn his back on her. He glanced at Ally and she smiled at him and he knew she was happy he’d agreed. Of course he had to do the right thing. Hopefully she hadn’t had any doubts about that.
“I’ll call the doctor in the morning and make an appointment,” Brittany told them. “Then I’ll let you know when.”
Extreme Close Up Chapter 24