Life After Perfect(9)

By: Nancy Naigle

His future had once been all laid out. Not so anymore. Not since the day Laney died. He was only certain of one thing: he couldn’t work in oncology.

Balancing the wins and losses had become impossible, and the losses were sucking him under like quicksand. He knew that it was the time to switch gears, and leave that area of medicine to others.

There was a time when he’d have pushed his opinion on Kelly Jo. Touted the help she’d receive at highly acclaimed facilities like his. And for a moment those thoughts flew through his mind, but they didn’t emerge from his lips. He didn’t have it in his heart anymore. There were a few drugs they could use to slow things down a little, but from the look of Kelly Jo’s last scans, there wasn’t much hope for any relief that would improve her quality of life in those additional days.

“Are you clear on all of your options?” he’d asked.

She’d held up a hand. “Completely. Please don’t—”

“That’s fine. I understand.”

She’d breathed a noticeable sigh of relief. She was so tired. It was as if Laney were sitting in front of him. The life no longer danced in her eyes. The rounded slope of her shoulders evidence it was too much to hold a straight line anymore.

No. Cancer wasn’t for sissies. This gal was no sissy. She’d fought her battle, and she’d chosen what she was willing to give. It was okay. It wasn’t easy. Not for the patients. Not for their families and the physicians and nurses who kept an eye on “quality of life” even when the end was near.

When Laney got worse, he’d shifted most of his patients to the care of one of his partners, keeping only a handful who were so far along in their treatments that it seemed unfair to ask them to trust someone new.

By the time Laney died, all of his other patients had too, and so had a big part of him.

Mentally exhausted, he walked over to the Blue Skies Cafe. It was a straight shot, back door to back door, between the medical center and the diner. He’d walked it so many times that he knew where all the potholes and divots were in the gravel parking lot.

The oppressive heat made his shirt stick to his body, though it wasn’t even a fifty-yard walk.

In the diner, the sizzle on the flattop grill softened the conversations between the people already starting to fill the booths for supper. Ol’ Man Johnson gave Derek a wave and a nod.

“I’ll get my own drink,” Derek said grabbing a glass at the beverage station.

“Doggone right you will.” The hefty man toddled off toward the grill, his laugh like the howl of a beagle on the scent of a white tail. Nearly as wide as he was tall, he blocked almost the entire view of the long cooktop, though the smell of herbs and onions wafted up around him.

Without one complaint from the cafe’s owner, Derek could tell the poor guy’s gout was flaring up again. “If you’d stay away from that shellfish like I told you, you wouldn’t be hobbling around like you are.”

“Shrimp scampi. Worth every bite. It’s the special. There’s more. Want some?”

“Sounds perfect. Got any of those cheese grits?”

“You know it.”

And that was just about how ordering at the Blue Skies Cafe went for Derek every time. He rarely had to choose his order, just let Ol’ Man Johnson tell him what was cooking, or let Angie decide. His best friend from high school knew his likes and dislikes as well as he did.

Still, those shrimp and grits were hard to pass up. Derek figured Johnson had probably had a double helping to cause that gout flare-up, but Derek had to admit the guy was in good shape for someone easily ninety pounds overweight. Even his cholesterol was better than most of his patients who were on a prescription for it. Just goes to show you that you can’t always tell what’s going on internally from the outside of a person.

This diner was no different. From the tired turn-of-the-century storefront, you might expect a typical greasy spoon.

Not the case.

Ol’ Man Johnson’s daughter had gone to some fancy interior design school up in New York City, and he’d let her practice on his restaurant to help build her portfolio.

Over one summer, the Blue Skies Cafe had gone from leave-no-impression to y’all-come-on-back-now-and-set-a-spell. It proved that a little thing like ambiance could change the clientele. The light that streamed in the windows used to about blind the customers. His daughter solved that by contracting an artist out near Blowing Rock to do stained glass panels. As dividers between the booths, the panels diffused the rays through the colorful glass images like a church on Sunday. Almost heavenly, and that was exactly what a Food Network star had said about the food when he came in and sampled the Blue Skies Cafe’s signature dish—Carolina Beefalo and Browns.

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