Authors: Lurlene McDaniel
“Are you nuts?”
His tone stung her. For some reason, in her imagination, she’d pictured that Austin would nod his approval and ask, “How can I help?”
She glared at him. “No, I’m not nuts. I have it all planned out, and I know exactly what I’m doing.”
“What exactly are you doing?”
“I’m taking Cassie for a vacation to see the ocean, because she doesn’t have much time left. And because it’s something I
to do.” She eyed him defiantly. “I have money to pay for everything.”
He was curious about her claim but only asked, “And what about your mother?”
“I’ll call her when we get there, and she can come down and be with us. Once Cassie and I are down there, she’ll have to come meet us.”
“It’s the only way I can get Cassie to Florida and do something for her.”
He shook his head in disbelief and walked away, his hands shoved in his jean pockets. Over his shoulder, he asked, “And how are the two of you going to get down there—jump a freight train?”
“Don’t make fun of me, Austin. I’ve thought of that, and I know
can do it.”
He paused and turned slowly. His eyes were dark, but she could read his incredulous expression from ten feet. He asked, “We?”
She licked her lips and met the challenge of his gaze. “Right … we. I’m asking you to drive us. I need you, Austin. I need you to drive us in your parent’s van. It’s big enough so Cassie can lie down and be comfortable. It’s new and dependable. The whole trip is only twenty hours. You can take us and leave us and come right back home.”
He walked back over toward her. “Dani, there’re three states between Ohio and Florida, and every major expressway will have cops alerted and on the lookout for you. No matter how good your
intentions, you can’t remove Cassie from the hospital without your mother’s consent. You’ll be breaking the law.”
Dani hadn’t thought about maybe being chased by cops. With more determination than she felt, she said, “I don’t care. We can make it … I know we can.”
He turned away, but she grabbed his arm. “Please, Austin. You’re the only one who understands how important this is. I thought you’d want to help Cassie. Even a stranger from the One Last Wish Foundation wants to help her, and so far as we know they’ve never met Cassie. If some strangers will reach out to her …” Dani let the sentence trail.
“What are you talking about—One Last Wish?”
Dani had decided she’d have to tell Austin. Now she told him about how Cassie had found the letter and the check. She didn’t tell Austin the amount of the check. She thought that part was Cassie’s to share. “I deposited the money in the bank.”
“How did you do that? Didn’t she have to sign or something?”
Dani nodded. “I took everything to Cassie at the hospital and after she signed the paperwork, I deposited the check,” Dani said. “It’s not hard to put money into the bank. It’s hard to get it out. We have plenty of money to make the trip. After
all. Cassie got the money and JWC told her to spend it on anything she wanted.”
“I’m sure that didn’t include kidnapping your sister and running away to Florida. Will there be enough left over for legal fees when the law catches up with you?”
Exasperated, Dani turned to pleading. “Austin, you once promised me you’d do anything you could to help Cassie. Did you lie?”
“Spiriting her out of the hospital and driving to Florida with every cop in the South looking for us, wasn’t exactly what I had in mind in the way of helping.”
Dani felt hot tears stinging her eyes. She couldn’t start crying now! Furiously, she swiped the back of her hand over her eyes. Through gritted teeth, she fumed, “All right! So, don’t help, Austin Cole. But don’t think for a minute that just because you won’t do it, I can’t find somebody who will. I have enough money to rent a Learjet.” She whirled on her heel and started walking back toward the car. “And forget about having to take me home. I’d rather walk!”
She hadn’t gone far when he caught up to her and spun her around. She struggled to free herself, but felt all her inner reserves crumbling. Horrified, she began to weep.
“Don’t cry,” he whispered as he cradled her to him. “It’ll be all right.”
When she could talk, she sputtered, “It’ll never be all right. Don’t you see? Cassie’s dying, and I can’t stop it. No one can stop it. I’ve prayed and prayed for her to get well, but God’s not answering. I don’t even think He’s listening.”
“Don’t be mad at God.” Austin sighed. “You just have to believe that He knows what’s going on with Cassie. And with you, too, you crazy girl. The bottom line is God gets to decide what happens, not us.”
If she’d been playing a card game, Dani knew, she’d be out of aces. She’d tried everything, and still Austin had said no. For a few days, she had held some hope that she might be able to do something impossible and wonderful for her sister. Austin was right—she was nuts.
Dani let him hold her. She felt his fingers in her hair and listened to the beating of his heart through the fabric of his shirt. His voice sounded muffled as he said, “I don’t want you finding someone else. I’ll help you.”
Her breath caught, and she hugged him tighter. “You will? You’ll help me with my plan?”
He gazed down at her and, shaking his head, said, “It’s a crazy idea that’ll probably land us in jail, but your heart’s in the right place, even if your brain isn’t.” He paused and touched her cheek. “Besides, if Cassie were my sister, I’d want to do the same thing for her.”
“You’re really going to help,” she said, as if the words were a magic chant. Suddenly, she felt as though a weight had been removed from her shoulders. “I’m so sorry I yelled at you. You’re wonderful, honest!”
“I’m not doing this just for Cassie,” he said. “I’m doing it for you, too.”
“Because we’re friends?”
“Because we’re friends and because, Dani, you’re somebody special to me.”
Dani sprang into activity over the next few days to get things ready from the van to finding a hotel. She and Austin pored over road maps, choosing the best routes. If they couldn’t take 1-75 and the other major highways, they’d turn off the beaten path. Dani had no intentions of being stopped by the police and sent home before they reached their destination.
The plan was in place on Monday morning once her mother went to work. Dani packed suitcases. She carefully chose a selection of summer and beach clothes she’d bought at the mall. Austin organized the van. He filled a cooler with drinks, snacks, and bags of food they’d bought at the supermarket. The less they had to stop, the better off they would be, they’d decided.
Austin arranged a pallet and thick mat on the carpeted floor of the van for Cassie. They lined
it with blankets and pillows, leaving room for Dani to be near Cassie if necessary. Austin rigged a battery-powered small reading lamp and selected books and magazines. The van was air-conditioned and that would help them not have to deal with the heat.
Austin piled other boxes under the seats and explained to Dani that he’d organized “support equipment,” in case they came up against anything unexpected.
Cassie’s treatment on Monday made her sick. Dani held her hand and assured her that things were almost ready. “I’m supposed to get another radiation treatment on Thursday,” Cassie said. “I can’t stand it anymore. I’d be better off dead.”
Dani’s stomach tightened with both dread and anticipation. “We’ll leave Wednesday night,” she promised her sister. “Right after the midnight shift change. The nurses won’t check vital signs until about three
. That’ll give us a good head start.”
“I can hardly wait,” Cassie whispered. “So much has happened. This really is going to be my wish come true.”
Dani tried to take a nap Wednesday, but she was too tense to sleep. As she and her mom headed home from their visit to Cassie, her mother said, “You know, I think in spite of everything, the radiation’s helping.”
“How so?” Dani asked nervously.
“Didn’t you see how happy Cassie looked tonight? How bright her eyes were? How talkative she was? I’m telling you, Dani, she was almost glowing. I know she’s responding to the treatments.”
“Dr. Phillips told us she’d have good times along with the bad.”
“You see, I was right to insist on the treatments,” Mom said with a grin. “Cassie may lick this thing after all.”
“Maybe,” Dani agreed, feeling like a traitor. In a few hours, she, Cassie, and Austin would be on the road to Florida. There would be no turning back. She tried not to listen to her mother’s chatter. She concentrated on making her sister’s wish come true.
EDNESDAY NIGHT, WHILE
her mother was sound asleep, Dani noiselessly stole down the stairs. Outside, the moonless night seemed very dark. Austin had pulled the van to the end of her street, and she climbed inside. Wordlessly, Austin drove to the hospital and parked as close to an emergency side exit as possible. Austin waited in the van while Dani walked boldly through the Emergency Room entrance.
The ER waiting area was crowded, and no one even noticed her. She rode up to Cassie’s floor and slipped off the elevator. The corridor lights had been dimmed, and the halls were deserted.
The ever present hospital smell hung in the air. Only the sounds of respirators and the beep of heart monitors seemed threatening.
Dani held her breath. She purposely bypassed Cassie’s room, opened the inner stairwell door, and hurried down seven flights of stairs. At the fire door leading outside, she paused to catch her breath and slow her pounding heart. As quietly as she could, she opened the door, always locked at night from the outside, and let Austin in. He brushed past her, and together, they headed back up.
She prayed every step of the way that no nurse or technician would choose this time to take the stairs. On Cassie’s floor, Dani cracked the heavy fire door and peered both ways. “All dear,” she whispered over her shoulder.
Cautiously, she and Austin slipped inside and went straight to Cassie’s room. Her sister was waiting for them. Dani had left clothes for her sister, and Cassie had found the strength to get dressed. She’d tied a scarf around her hair which was still patchy from the treatments. As Austin helped Cassie out of bed, Dani arranged the pillows and some towels from the bathroom so that from the doorway, it looked as if someone were still in the bed.
At the doorway of the room, Dani held her breath and peeked out. Again, the long, quiet corridor
, she told herself. That’s all the time they needed to get to the fire door. She went first, opened the door, and slid around the corner. Keeping it partially open, she gave Austin a hand signal, and he scooped Cassie up in his arms and hurried for the opening.
Dani shut the door, and the three of them stood in the stairwell for a moment.
“We’re all sure we want to do this?” Dani asked suddenly.
“Let’s go,” Cassie said.
Austin half carried Cassie, half supported her down the stairs with Dani leading the way. At the bottom, Dani darted outside and opened the door of the van. She got in and watched as Austin carried Cassie across the short space from the doorway to where the van was parked.
Dani helped Cassie inside, settling her onto the mat. Austin hopped behind the steering wheel and turned on the motor. Kneeling beside her sister, Dani asked, “You okay?”
Cassie’s breath was coming in short, gasping bursts. “I’m okay,” she whispered. “We made it.”
Dani grasped her sister’s hand, resting it alongside her perspiring cheek. “Let’s hope so,” she told her as the van began to move.
Cassie quickly fell asleep, obviously exhausted just from the escape. Dani sat in the front of the
van on the passenger’s side. “She doing all right?” Austin asked.
“It took a lot out of her, but she’s coasting on adrenaline. I haven’t seen her this excited since last Christmas—before she got sick.” Dani grinned. She felt afraid but satisfied.
Austin glanced in his side mirror and accelerated up the ramp marked “1-75 South.” Leaving Cincinnati, so near to the border between Ohio and Kentucky, they were into the Bluegrass State in no time. Since the expressway was practically deserted, Dani didn’t feel the need to keep looking over her shoulder for police lights.
Austin flipped on the cruise control mechanism and settled back in the seat with a long sigh. “Don’t want to break any speed limits.”
“We made it,” Dani said, keeping her eyes straight ahead. She experienced a wave of euphoria.
“Getting her out of the hospital was the hardest part,” she countered.
“Don’t bet on it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I figure that if we’re lucky, they won’t discover she’s missing for another two hours. Then they’ll call your mother. Then she’ll call the police—”
“We left letters for her, explaining everything,” Dani interrupted.
He shook off her remark and continued. “The police will start pumping your mother for information on who could have helped you. And before too long, your mom will think of me. Then the police will come and find out that I told my neighbor I was going off for a few days—”