Excerpt – Just Friends

Chapter 1

Sally Hughes skipped down the courthouse steps and headed across the street. The mayor had refused to talk, but her interview with his assistant had partially confirmed her suspicions. Another hot story to dig into.

Voices—one aggressive, the other seeming to push back with quiet anger—caught her attention as she entered the nearby park. A Seattle reporter she’d seen at the awards banquet was accosting a man leaning heavily on a crutch. He wore dark khaki slacks, and a matching jacket, his starched white shirt open at the collar. As Sally drew closer, her heart gave a little jump. Paul James.

Olivia’s brother-in-law. Sally hadn’t seen him since she’d driven him around town the week after her best friend’s wedding. She’d felt an unexpected zing—of pleasure? Excitement?—in his presence. Before she’d dropped him off, he’d given her a slow appraising look of appreciation. Today he looked like he wanted to deck Harvey, but Paul’s stiff stance suggested he was in pain. Still?

“Paul!” His blond hair shone in the sun, some strands golden, others slightly darker, no longer military-short. The scar so prominent on his cheek at the wedding had faded. He must be getting out more. He looked healthier.

Paul glanced in her direction, took two awkward steps backward and gave her a fleeting half-smile before scowling again at the newsman.
“What’s up, Harvey?” she asked.

“Just trying to get war details. I’m doing a story on returning vets. Soldiers.” He adjusted his shirt downward over his paunch, and his comb-over slid forward, revealing his bald spot.

“Doesn’t look like this particular Marine wants to talk,” Sally replied, as Paul leaned against a bench. She wiggled her fingers at him, hoping he’d take the hint and sit down.

“But he was where the action was.” Harvey stared again at Paul.

“Go on out to Lewis-McChord. The base has lots of vets willing to talk. Leave this one alone.” She stood between the reporter and Paul, who finally slid down on the bench, his breath coming in short gasps.

Harvey smirked as he pointed at Paul. “Friend of yours, Sal? Since when do you pal around with soldiers?”

She took a step toward the reporter, her hands on her hips. “You need to get that.”

The man reached into his shirt pocket. He turned on his heel and lumbered off, talking on his phone as he headed toward the parking lot adjoining the courthouse.

“Paul, how’ve you been?” Sally sat down on the bench next to him, the better to admire his tan, his angular face.

He scrutinized her for a long minute. “Thanks for that, I think.” A corner of his mouth quirked upward in the hint of a smile. “You’re working today.” He pointed at the notebook sticking out of her purse. “Not going to include me in your story, are you?”

She shook her head. “What was that all about? He doesn’t usually bother with personal interest pieces.”

“Must have found out where I was when”—he pointed to his leg—“all this happened. What he claimed, anyway. Wasn’t about to talk to him, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer.” He turned his gaze in the direction of the man’s retreating back before adding, “I owe you.”

“No, you don’t.” She patted the crutch he’d leaned against the bench. “You aren’t wearing that big old boot anymore.”

“No cast, either, but I’m still seeing the shrinks. Not my idea of fun, but it was an order—from Beau and my company commander, even though I’m getting out soon.”

“A Marine follows orders, right?” She grinned at him.

“Right.” He pushed himself to a standing position. “Time to head for the gym. I’m working out to get stronger.”

“As if you aren’t already.” His arm muscles bulged beneath the shirt sleeves pushed above his elbows.

“Not like I was.” He reached for his crutch. “One of these days, I’m going to burn my crutches and my cane, too.”

Sally stood. “Let me know when. I love a good bonfire.”

His blue eyes, the shade of a summer sky, darkened when he gazed at her. “You got an award last night. Read the paper this morning. Congrats.”

Sally felt her cheeks warm. “Thanks. My first.”

“Probably won’t be your last.” Paul stepped slowly away from the park bench.

Sally took it as her cue to leave, too. “See you around.”


She watched him maneuver away from the people waiting to cross the street then headed for her car, eager to write up what she’d learned from the mayor’s assistant.

~ ~ ~

Ten days after her brief encounter with Paul, Sally stripped and tossed her close in a pile. Her hike around the lake, where she hoped to see Paul but didn’t, had left her sweaty and eager for a hot shower. She undid her braid and ran her fingers through her long hair, wincing when her thumb encountered a snarl. She reached for her comb, ran it through her tresses and climbed into the shower.

The water felt good as it sluiced down her back. After washing and conditioning her hair, she used her mother’s favorite lavender soap on her skin, beginning with her face and working her way down her torso and legs and back up past her ribs and over her breasts.

What’s that? Near the outer edge of her right breast, an uneven lump seemed to skate under her fingers. Never felt that before. When had she stopped checking her breasts every time she showered? Weeks? Months? She’d honored her mother insistence that she check at least once a month, faithfully, in the weeks after the memorial service.

Her heart thumped as Sally slid down onto the floor of the shower and began a deliberate circular motion with her fingers. Nothing in her left breast. She forced her fingers back onto her right breast and began to move them—go slow—around her breast, beginning high, like the nurse had demonstrated. She held her breath as her fingers circled her breast, easing closer with each pass to where she’d detected that bump. But she must have imagined it. Gone. Disappeared. She shivered, drew in a deep breath and let it out with a whoosh.

She was barely thirty. She had to be dreaming. More like having a nightmare. Had she imagined it because she’d been thinking about her mom during her run?

She checked her left breast again. Nothing. Just the usual softness. Now the right one. There it was. Something hard, like an irregular pea. But when she pressed harder, she couldn’t feel it. Maybe it was benign, what her doctor said women have, more obvious at different times in their cycles. Her mother’s doctor had said tumors didn’t move, but lumps did.

She climbed out of the shower, wrapped her hair in a towel and began to scrub her skin dry. But when she moved the towel to her breasts, she patted them, fearful that vigorous action might make worse whatever it was she had felt, might make it spread. She wanted to scrub it away, dig it out. When she cupped her breasts, her felt nothing but soft tissue under shower-warmed skin that shone with a healthy pinkish glow in the steamy bathroom.

She was hallucinating—remembering her mother. I’ve been working too hard. That had to be it. Too sensitive to meaningless changes, that’s what I am. The doctor said breast variation occurred every cycle. It was probably one of those monthly hormone-driven changes.

~ ~ ~

The next morning, Sally dressed quickly and pulled on her sport bra, careful to avoid touching what she did not want to feel. Her plan to follow up on the mayor’s shenanigans was forgotten in her rush to get out of the house and over to the lake trail. She craved a bike ride, an exhausting ride designed to chase away her worries.

She cycled around the lake, trying to free her mind by thinking only of her breathing, striving to maintain a fixed speed, even on the steepest hills, relaxing as she coasted along the downhill and flatter sections of the trail. She let her mind idly review the unfinished articles awaiting her attention at the Evergreen Times newsroom, stories she would work on that afternoon—and avoid thinking about what she’d felt, or thought she’d felt, the day before.

Five miles into her ride, she pedaled up a particularly steep hill. She topped the ridge, her thigh muscles burning, and headed for a tree with a distinctive branch that angled outward like a crooked elbow. She leaned her bike against the trunk, and sat down under the branch. The sun sparkled on the lake, placid in the mid-spring sun. A flock of ducks glided on the breeze before landing on the water. Sally followed their progress, then leaned her head against the tree and closed her eyes, content to listen to their soft quacks.

What she had discovered the night before intruded, leaving her with a feeling of foreboding. Should she call the doctor right away or wait until after her period? Maybe what she thought she’d found wasn’t really there. She’d feel really stupid if the doctor didn’t find anything, that she’d worried for nothing. I’ll wait. That one time she’d checked, it hadn’t been there. Maybe her breast-exam technique was off.

~ ~ ~

Every night, Sally avoided touching her breasts when she showered, fearing that if she tried to find the lump again, she would. Her heart pounded faster whenever she thought of her mother, remembering what she’d said about checking her breasts. Finally, after a week of nights when she slept poorly, images of her mother’s last nights and days harassing her, Sally held her breath and began a methodical examination of her left breast. Stay calm. She relaxed when she detected nothing new. Her breathing slowed. She rinsed her hair a second time, then a third, forcing herself to think positively.

Please, God, don’t let it be there.

As her fingers pressed the outer segment slightly above nipple level of her right breast, she felt it again. The same as before? Her pulse jumped in her neck, a countdown to destiny that promised no-thing good. She stopped and began again, reversing the direction of her fingers as they did their curving dance on her skin. Her hands slid away from her right breast and she leaned her forehead into the side of the shower, the water cascading down her back, past her legs and into the drain.

No. It can’t be. Her gut twisted and her breath came faster. If the doctor could hear her, Sally would have shouted. You said it wasn’t likely, that it wasn’t hereditary, that we didn’t have the cancer gene. But he wasn’t there. Only her fingers had detected the stealthy presence of an unwelcome stranger.

She had to call the doctor. What if he confirmed what she didn’t want to hear? She climbed out of the shower and dried her hair. Her phone bounced on the side table when she entered her bedroom.

Olivia. Sally checked the time and debated returning the call. Too late tonight.

~ ~ ~

The next day, Sally called Olivia. “I found a lump. In my right breast.”

Her friend’s small gasp confirmed Sally’s fears.

“Will you come with me, Liv? I can’t do it by myself. He said it wasn’t likely I would get what Mom had. Oh, God. What if it’s—”

“Sally,” Olivia’s voice came through so strong, so caring. “It may not be cancer. You know lumps aren’t always cancer.”

Sally’s heart raced again. “I’m going to lose my hair. Maybe I shouldn’t have let it grow after I donated those sixteen inches.”

“Stop talking that way. It may not be what you’re thinking.” When Sally didn’t reply, Olivia added, her voice softer. “When is your appointment? Of course I’ll come with you.”

~ ~ ~

Three days later, Olivia refused to stay in the waiting room. “You don’t understand. She lost her mother to cancer, less than two years ago. No way is she going in there by herself,” Olivia insisted.

She held Sally’s hand as she lay on the table and the doctor completed his examination.

Sally trembled when his hand approached the spot now burned into her brain, a spot she didn’t want to think about, a spot she’d checked almost every night. She squeezed Olivia’s hand and tried to keep her voice bereft of emotion.

“Right there. Do you feel it?” she asked, her throat dry.

The doctor nodded. “You can sit up now. I’d like to do a need-le biopsy. It could just be a lump, benign, nothing to be concerned about.” But the deliberate blandness of his expression suggested otherwise. “When was your last mammogram?”

“About six months ago. You told me what Mom had wasn’t genetic. Did you lie?” She knew she was being harsh, but she couldn’t help it. Her fear, her terror, was talking.

“Your mother had inflammatory breast cancer. And neither of you had the breast cancer gene. This could be nothing. I don’t want you to—”

“Jump to conclusions? Panic? What would you do if your mother died of breast cancer and you just found a lump?” She swung her legs off the table and stood, her hands shaking as she reached for her clothes. “How long do I have to wait? I have to know. I want you to get it out of me.”

Olivia patted Sally’s arm, interrupting her thoughts. “Dr. Harper said he wants to do a biopsy.”

“How long do I have to wait?” Sally scooted back onto the table, feeling invaded by something unseen and evil.

“We have to grow out the cells. It usually takes about fourteen days, sometimes longer. And I’ll get in touch with you right away.”

When they left the clinic, Sally sported a small bandage over the area where the needle had penetrated her skin.

“I know what he’s going to say, Livvy. My mom left me all her hair clips—told me to enjoy wearing them. As if I’m going to need them now,” she mumbled as she pulled her hair over one shoulder and adjusted the rubber band holding her long ponytail.

“Let’s not think about that. Come on. We’ll have lunch and something yummy for dessert.” Olivia drove to a favorite restaurant, insisting on a table near the back, where they could talk privately.

Beautiful auburn-haired Olivia with the shoulder-length curls Sally had always yearned for. But she couldn’t stop coiling and uncoiling her straight satiny brown hair, tresses just like what her mother had lost.

“I want you to promise you’ll call the minute the doctor tells you the results.”

Sally nodded, her chin quivering in spite of her plan not to lose control, not to break down.

“I know you’re scared, but you’re not alone. I won’t let you be alone. You were there for me after Granddad died. And I’m here for you. You know that, don’t you?” Olivia’s blue eyes gazed back at her. “Beau and I… we won’t let you be alone. Will you come to dinner on Friday? Beau would love to see you, and Paul will be there, too. We’ll have a boys-against-the-girls Scrabble game—or maybe Trivial Pursuit. With you on my team, we’re sure to win.” Olivia grinned.

“I’m not sure I’ll be good company, Livvy.”

“All the more reason to come—enjoy a nice meal with people who love you. A chance to think about something else.”

“But this is so scary. It’s not fair. I don’t deserve this.” She reached for Olivia’s hand and gripped it tightly.

Olivia hugged her. “I’d be scared, too, but you know what they say. The sooner you find a lump, the less likely it is to be cancer. Doctor Harper said it was pretty small. It’s probably benign, nothing to worry about—like he said. Tell me you’ll come.”

“What can I bring?”

“I haven’t figured out the menu yet. Let me call you.”

When Sally shut the door of her apartment, her eyes burned with unshed tears. She went into the bedroom and collapsed onto what had been her mother’s bed. She couldn’t cry. She never cried. She had vowed never to show her fear after her father left. She was seven when he’d walked out. Her mother had cried all night, looking helpless and forlorn the next day, for weeks to come. Sally decided then that tears were not for her.

She rolled onto her side and gazed at her mom’s picture, the one taken after her mother lost her hair and began wearing a multi-hued turban, what she called her “rainbow cap.” Her smile was wide, as if she hadn’t a care in the world. But that was the day they learned that the cancer had spread to her bones and her brain. Surgery hadn’t stopped it, nor had the chemo.

Sally trembled, unable to think of anything other than that she wanted her mother’s arms around her, to make her feel safe. But her mother was dead. She couldn’t keep her safe. What had stolen her mother’s vitality and her life two years before now threatened her. Sally brought her mother’s picture to her lips and kissed it.

“Ma, what am I going to do? I’m so scared.”

Sally climbed out of bed and piled two blankets over the coverlet her mother had made. But even after she crawled under the extra covers and curled into a ball, she couldn’t seem to get warm.