As far back as she could remember, Sara Beth Mullins had heard stories about this town. Staring out the window at the busy street five stories below, her mind could still smell the vanilla Cavendish pipe tobacco and feel the soft whiskers of her Papaw’s beard tickling her neck as he spoke of adventures in that place called Louisville. She had never been farther than Somerset at that time, the county seat of Pulaski County, and his tales sounded as exciting and mysterious to her as any foreign land could offer up.
Sara Beth had sat there in quiet reverence listening to the words of the man she was sure held hero status anywhere his boots touched the ground. He told of the great Bourbon Stockyards where hundreds, maybe thousands, of animals were sold to market every week. He even took his cattle and hogs there several times a year to be sold. He said they just brought better money there than they did in Lexington, but she always suspected he just went mostly for the adventure of it.
He told of buildings so tall you had to hold your hat on your head when you looked to the top to keep it from hitting the ground behind you. He would chuckle as he told of people jumping in fright down on the river levy when the big paddle wheeler would blow her whistle announcing her departure. And he spoke softly of the beautiful ladies in fancy gowns and big hats down on Fourth Street at night, under the marquee lights of the theaters there.
"But none as pretty as your Mamaw though," he whispered loud enough for all to hear.
That always brought a blush across Mamaw’s cheeks and bent her lips into a smile. He spoke down this street and up that one, always keeping young Sara Beth right along with him as he wondered at the people, places and things he saw. He would take her there with him in a carriage of gilded words pulled by a team of whispered visions.
That seemed a lifetime ago, she thought, and the reality of it struck her hard. It could very well be a lifetime ago, given her reason for being here today. Sixteen years could hardly be considered a lifetime, but then again she guessed it could if it was all you were given.
Scanning the skyline and streets around her perch, nothing seemed at all like she imagined it would be. The buildings were brown and dirty and dingy looking under the gray and yellow overcast skies. Somehow the scenery fit her mood rather well, she thought. Turning away from the window, Sara Beth crossed the room and took a seat behind the little coffee table opposite her parents. She opened the pamphlet she had been clutching in her hand and began to read.
"The James Graham Brown Cancer Center was established in 1977 by a group of local citizens who…"
A chill made her shiver as the loud metallic clank of the door echoed through the silence of the room.
"Mullins…. Sara Beth Mullins?" the nurse queried through a bright smile…
* * * * *
The only sound in the room was the quiet creak of the chair beside her, as her mother’s weight shifted from tense rigidity to settle in limpness. Sara Beth could not break the stare she held with the doctor’s eyes. His confident face could not hide that instant of helpless loneliness she saw at the edges of a sad gray there. As the extra beats of her heart dissolved in her chest and slid down her insides to lay cold and numb in the bottom of her belly, she felt sorry for the man. How terrible this must all be for him as well, she thought.
"Acute lymphocytic leukemia," he had said. "ALL for short."
As lead investigator in her case, Dr. Wesley Kincaid had identified her assailant; he even knew his nickname. With the perpetrator now in custody, Dr. Kincaid vowed to prosecute to the fullest extent of his knowledge. He laid out all evidence before Sara Beth and her parents and went over his strategy for the trial ahead of them. His candor was appreciated if reluctantly accepted. But he also knew that the perpetrator would walk away from the Court of Medicine in the Hall of Science two out of five times, return to the scene of his crime and finish the job he had started. He told them this as well.
Sara Beth only half listened as the doctor laid out her treatment plan. The specific mechanics of it all was not something she was sure she wanted to know about anyway. Suffice it to be enough to know that the road ahead of her would be long and hard traveled. Maybe her lack of attention was a self-defense mechanism allowing her to slowly accept the knowledge that a vile and hideous monster had invaded her body. Or maybe it was a display of her real inner strength; her ability to put others in front of herself, even at the most trying of times.
She couldn’t stop thinking about the doctor. How could he do this day in and day out, sometimes hour after hour and maintain his sanity? Go from one patient to the next and tell them that there is a good chance they are going to die and there is not really much we can do to help. Sara Beth couldn’t even begin to fathom the weight of a burden like that. She was startled out of her thoughts the second time that she heard her name.
"Sara Beth, do you have any questions … Sara Beth?" the doctor asked.
"No," was all she said.
"OK then," he said. "I’ll have the nurse schedule your treatments and we’ll get started."
They all stood to leave, the doctor shaking hands with Mr. Mullins and patting the hand of Mrs. Mullins as he held it for a long moment across the desk. Sara Beth walked to where Dr. Kincaid was standing. As he turned to face her, she stepped forward and extended her arms around him in a hug as she closed her eyes and pressed her cheek against his breast. This hug was not for her; it was for him. And there they stood. His hand gently patting her back as his shiny wet eyes found their match across the room in those of her father. For a flicker of an instant, Sara Beth caught the smell of vanilla Cavendish for the second time that day. And she smiled.