I was always terrified of doctors above all else, so by the time I finally steeled myself enough to go, the cancer had metastasized in both breasts. I sat numbly in Dr. Kerden’s office, as she droned on about my options. She never berated me for my stupidity. She didn’t have to; her bewilderment and restrained contempt bled through the sympathetic tones she spoke about chemotherapy in.
The bottom line was suffocatingly simple: if the treatments and surgeries were successful (Dr. Kerden could not have stressed the “if” more if she had scrawled it in lipstick on the desk)my chance of surviving more than five years was about twenty two percent.
I was only twenty four and all my plans – marriage to my fiance,future children, a full-fledged career in travel photography – had just been yanked from my feet and placed on a high shelf I had a seventy-eight percent chance of never reaching.
Oddly, out of all those bricks that had just crashed down on my head, the one that broke the dam and spilled my tears was the realization that even if -if!- I survived, married Ben, had children, I would never breast feed them. There was no chance of saving my breasts at that point. To this day, I’ve never figured out why that was what hit me hardest.
Normally I would have argued every inch of a medical procedure. Not this time. I signed papers numbly, barely glancing at the black print that swam in and out of focus. Waivers. Insurance proof. Next of kin. Emergency contacts.
I don’t even remember going home and packing my bag for the hospital that night. I must have talked to Ben, I know, because he was in that sterile room late into the night before the nurses finally kicked him out.
Dr. Kerden, as it turned out, was my polar opposite when it came to medical procrastination; chemo started within the next few days. Let me tell you right now, the chemo patients you see on tv shows and movies don’t tell half the story of the suffering you really go through.
When I looked in the mirror after the first treatment, I saw the most exhausted woman I’d ever seen looking back at me. By the third treatment, she looked more dead than alive. Yellowing skin, hollowed eyes, thin, cracked lips in spite of all the clinical chapstick the nurses gave me. Ben used to tease me for my “baby face” (because he was too sweet to straight up admit that my round face was a tad bit pudgy) and now that face was lined, the round cheeks sunken in. I looked forty.
I would feel dead if I wasn’t hobbling to the bathroom every day, the retching of my stomach gleefully proclaiming: “Yes! Yes we are alive! Ain’t it just fucking grand?!”
Four months. I caved and had Ben bring his electric razor. I was past crying at that point, watching shreds of black hair, once so soft and shiny, fall into a hospital trashcan. Ben hadn’t reached that point just yet, I noticed as he quietly sniffled. He would, I knew.
That night, after Ben had been kicked out by the night nurse, I gave up trying to sleep, and snatched my current forget-I’m-dying-of-cancer book off my bedside table. I had been limping through the book only a few minutes when it dawned on me that I wasn’t alone in my hospital room anymore; a small man in a patchwork coat and a battered top hat was sitting in Ben’s vacated chair.
I stared at him stupidly above the edge of the book, instinctively hiding my young-old face as much as I could. He smiled encouragingly and offered a little wave. His hair was all hidden beneath that oversized hat, but his curly beard was a very bright ginger.
“Um, visiting hours are over,” I offered after a moment.
His smile widened into a grin and he doffed his hat in acknowledgment. “True enough, lass, but visiting hours are only for visitors.”
I blinked in surprise. For his small frame – he didn’t look much bigger than my thirteen-year-old nephew – his voice was surprisingly deep.
“Can I help you with something?” I fumbled for the remote with the nurse call button. “Are you looking for someone? The nurse should help…”
He stilled me with a dismissive wave and a laugh. “Oh no need for that, lass. I was looking for you, as it happened.”
I squinted at him, less alarmed by his potential stalking than the fact that he seemed to be flickering in and out like a candle flame – now solid, now faint as a ghost. Relief washed over me as I finally figured it out.
“I’m hallucinating,” I explained out loud. “The pain killers are kicking in, and I’m hallucinating a homeless leprechaun in my room.”
The walls shook with his laughter, as he kicked his feet in glee. He wiped tears from the corners of his eyes.
“If I had known you would be this delightful, I probably would have come to you a lot sooner.”
Had I been in any normal, non-drugged state of mind, I would have summoned the nurse then and there. Instead I unconsciously loosened my grip dropped the remote on the floor.
“Who are you?” I finally thought to ask. “What do you want from me? I don’t have a lot of money to spare at the moment….”
He flapped his hand in good-natured dismissal again.
“I don’t want anything from you, Anna. If anything I’m here for your benefit. I’ve brought you a gift of sorts.”
The short bark of laughter that escaped me was nothing like the frequent belly laughs I had had four months ago.
“What? You’re going to cure my cancer?”
He raised an eyebrow silently. Abruptly, my laughter dried up and I felt my cynical smile slide off my face. All of my family’s sworn to be true tales about demons and spirits came crashing down around me at once.
“You’re the devil and you want my soul,” I accused him.
He sniffed as though offended. “I’m Eustace, not a demon,” he countered, “and YOU summoned ME. I’m just here to give you what you want.”
Eustace? “I didn’t summon you.”
He sighed. “You read the fifth word of the third paragraph on the twenty-sixth page of ‘Prince Caspian’ at exactly forty-five seconds past one o’clock in the morning on April the fourteenth. You summoned me.”
I gaped at him. “What the hell kind of ritual is that??”
He winked. “The kind I change about every five minutes or so. Makes the odds of someone actually calling me to them microcosmic.”
I paused. “You don’t want people to summon you? Why?”
He chuckled. “By now with all of your social media, all of you humans should have learned a long time ago – the biggest pricks are the ones who come seeking you out. The best people you ever meet will fall into your life by accident.”
I raised my hands in a warding off gesture. “Look, if I summoned you, I seriously did not mean to. I don’t want three wishes, or wealth or any of that crap. I don’t want to give up my soul or my first-born or whatever it is you trade in. Please go away.”
He peered at me earnestly, actually clasping his little hands together like one of Dickens’ orphans. “I told you, Anna, I don’t want your soul. There is no trade to be made; beating the odds enough to summon me seals the bargain. You have earned my luck, and I’m afraid it is yours whether you want it or not.”
He nodded seriously and hopped up out of the chair. Standing, he would barely have come up to where my breasts had once been. He crossed over to my bedside and took my shock-limp hand in his own.
I realized with a start that behind his roguish grin and humor, his eyes were incredibly lonely. His hands held mine with deference, even gentleness.
“Yes, Anna. From this day onward, you will have my luck – however high the odds are stacked, you will always beat them.”
“And what do I have to give up in return?” The words fell nearly inaudibly from my trembling lips.
He smiled almost sadly. “A few minutes spent talking to a lonely old spirit that no one has summoned in a long, long time.”
I had no words left. There we were, a dying woman and an impossible spirit in the ICU at Mercy Hospital. Almost unconsciously, I felt myself squeeze his hand. I swear, a look of naked startlement flitted across his face.
Then the cheery, careless grin was back on his face and the moment was over. He patted my hand distantly and stepped back.
“One word of warning I must offer,” he said. “You humans rely on luck much less than you really know. This gift will change your life, and you must be prepared to change with it.”
He straightened his coat, doffed his hat, and winked out of my room.
The shrill beeping of my empty IV bag woke me up the next morning. I groaned. I felt like I had been hit with a truck; another unfortunate side effect of coming down off the painkiller cushion between you and the chemo.
The morning nurse came in swiftly and shut off the beeping and busied herself replacing the bag. I glanced at the clock. It was five-thirty, and time for my morning blood draw to see if I was dying any faster today than yesterday.
I pushed my encounter with Eustace to the back of my brain until a week later. I was spooning up the last of my jello cup when my current Doctor came in.
He smiled at me automatically over his clipboard as he flipped through the pages.
“Good morning, Miss Hall. How are you feeling today?”
I didn’t respond. He wasn’t offended. We both knew how I was doing. Suddenly he stopped flipping, gave the clipboard a hard look, and then, wonder of wonders, actually raised his eyes and looked me in the face.
“You’re in remission.”
He shook himself, recovering from his slip. “According to your recent blood work and biopsy, the spread of the cancerous cells has stopped. It also appears that the existent cells seem to be dying at an increasing rate.”
I could feel my lips trembling. “The cancer is dying? So I … I beat it?”
He offered me a sympathetic smile. “It’s a little early to tell, Miss Hall. We are definitely going to be monitoring this closely, but things are looking up.”
As it turned out, things were more than looking up; I went home two weeks later. I would still be getting regular scheduled blood work, of course, and a whole score of other tests to make sure that my cancer was actually gone. There was a fair chance that in the next few years the cancer could reoccur.
You might be thinking that I’d be drinking champagne, eating all the food I couldn’t have at the hospital, and having celebratory I’m-not-dead sex with Ben for days. Honestly, all I really wanted was a Tim Horton’s ham and swiss sandwich, and then to sleep in my own bed, in my own apartment for as long as possible.
Ben swung us by Tim’s on the way home. Turned out they were having a mini-event; we were the thousandth customers that day, so our meal was half off, with extra donuts thrown in with no charge.
Eating that vanilla creme, chocolate-iced donut after four months of peach jello was barely short of orgasmic. I think I actually moaned as I ate it, melting chocolate smeared on my cheek.
We managed to beat every rush-hour clog and hit every green light on the way home. Ben punched the air in triumph as we pulled into the driveway. That asshole in 2B who always took my parking spot wasn’t there yet.
Ben parked the car, ran around the front, and opened my door for me. I was still a bit wobbly on my feet, so he offered his arm like a true gentleman. Leaning heavily on him, I stepped into our apartment for the first time in almost five months.
The next few weeks blurred by. I hadn’t expended all my medical leave at Harnon’s Travel agency, but they still allowed me to come back to work a bit early. My hands fairly itched to hold my camera again.
Out of respect for the in-town doctors visits that I would still need for at least another month, my boss kindly set me on largely local assignments.
My photos and article on Alden Park, the local arboretum, actually generated enough interest to bring in a fair handful of tourists. No one marked it as their sole destination, of course, but a fair number of people nonetheless vacationing higher in the mountains read my article and thought it worth a detour to check it out.
As it happened, one of the tourists was the head editor of an internationally famous travel magazine. I found this out when I came in to work and he was sitting in my dinky cubicle, my complete portfolio already picked up from my office manager.
He seemed a little off-put by my appearance: my hair had only just started growing back, and the lines remained etched on my face, even though I had begun to gain some weight back. Nonetheless, he greeted me warmly and shook my hand, shifting my portfolio under his arm.
“Miss Hall? I’m George Mann, Editor in Chief at World Travels.”
I froze. World Travels was a legitimate, big time magazine. “Of course, Mr. Mann. What can I do for you today?”
Turned out he had taken an interest in my photos – he felt that lately most of the photographers working for World Travels were overlooking what he called the “smaller gems” (read anything nature heavy) choosing to focus on growing high-scale restaurants and developing up-town regions in various cities.
To cut a long story short, within ten days of getting back to work, I was offered a position that could legitimately spark off a career as a photographer. What are the odds?
I would have been an idiot not to have started connecting the dots at this point. It was becoming increasingly obvious that Eustace had not been a painkiller hallucination after all.
Still, I have always tried to take a logical, sensible approach to every mystery I’ve ever encountered, so I came up with an experiment that would make or break my theory.
I played the lottery. Not the small-prize scratch cards. I mean the BIG one, the multi-million dollar jackpot. Ben and I watched, slack-jawed, later that week when the powerball numbers were announced, watching as one by one, they matched up with my ticket.
Of course I never mentioned Eustace to Ben. It was enough that I knew he’d been real.
The next five years passed by like a dream. Despite the high risk I was at for a recurrence of cancer, it never struck. My hair grew back in it’s original color, without so much of a sprinkling of the expected gray. Ben and I were married and immediately found our dream house, paid for with a chunk of the lottery money. I privately blessed Eustace, at least at first.
I was on my lunch break, deciding to mix business with pleasure and cover a new soul-food style restaurant downtown. The barbeque ribs were spicy, balanced with just the right amount of sweetness. I took a large bite, and immediately felt a glass-shattering pain in my mouth.
One emergency trip to the dentist later revealed that as an unfortunate side effect of both the chemo and some of the drugs I had been on for cancer treatment years earlier, all of my teeth were slightly more brittle than they had been before.
I had shattered a back molar down to the root. Fortunately, the dentist peering at my outraged tooth informed me that it was actually one of my wisdom teeth, and not a true molar. That was the good news.
The worse news was that given the damage dealt, an extraction was the only real option on the table. I hate dental procedures worse than standard medical.
The doctor prescribed a penicillin derived antibiotic for after the extraction. The extraction itself actually went alright; it was after I had been taking the pills for two days that a quick ER trip revealed that I had apparently developed an allergy to all drugs in the penicillin family.
One full-body rash and a antibiotic switch later, I was back to work. Mr. Mann had become a pretty big fan of my work, and was giving me regular assignments now. The assignment folder on my desk today was for a piece on a section of the Appalachian trail and the small town in Vermont it opened up in. Full expense for air travel paid of course.
Since Ben was mainly freelance writing at this time, and could work anywhere he had access to wifi, I convinced him to come with me. We could try some maple candy and do a little hiking ourselves.
The odds of a plane crashing are actually pretty small, as are the odds of surviving it. When the plane went down over Pennsylvania, I survived. Ben didn’t.
When I stood at the foot of his coffin during his burial, I held an umbrella against the rain. I got struck by lightning. Twice. The photographs I took of the scars it left down my left arm and leg, alongside the entire story of how they came to be there fully cemented my career as a respected photographic journalist.
Looking at how my life has fallen in and out of pieces since Eustace stepped into it, I can’t hate him. I can’t say he cheated me, because I never gave him anything. I can’t say he lied to me, because he never once promised that the luck would be good.
There will always be odds stacked, but sometimes they are naturally stacked against you. Sometimes they are stacked in your favor. Eustace never promised I would only win; he just promised I would always manage to beat the odds. I can only say that he’s right on that count.
So I learned to stagger the odds against myself now and then. Now when it’s raining, I wear as much metal jewelry as I can decently fit on my body. When I go swimming, I only do it after a full meal. I do all of my jogging through dark alleyway late at night with my headphones cranked all the way up. If I have to be somewhere in a hurry, I stall for as long as possible and go through the highest traffic areas I can. I even under-cook all of my meat and fish just a little bit.
So far I’ve never been mugged, my health has been fairly steady, my career is wonderful, and I have enough money for a very comfortable life. On the other hand, my bed is empty every morning. Ben’s cologne never seems to wash out of his pillow. I still have the list of the names we wanted to give our children.
I can’t even really talk to a therapist about this because of how crazy it all sounds. Although I do suspect that given my luck, I would end up with the one doctor who happens to hold an un-confessed belief in the supernatural. I can’t even talk to a priest to bless away Eustace’s gift because I know deep down he told the truth when he said he was no demon.
Like it or not, the gift will be mine forever. And as Eustace advised, I’ve learned to cope with it. I don’t take high-reward risks anymore, learning to take pleasure in the small things. No fewer than fourteen times I have managed to catch perfect pictures of mother deer milking their fawns in wildflower fields. I can always find some small gem in the grimiest second hand stores.
As much as I miss Ben, I can’t be truly lonely either. I think the true gift Eustace gave me was this; since I met him, I have encountered some of the wildest, freest, and brightest minded people in the most unlikely places. They are the best people I’ve ever met, and they all found me by accident.
If there is one thing I still can take control of here, it is this; the odds are split even fifty-fifty on whether I will live a happy life.
What can I say? When all other odds are stacked, life has a funny way of evening out.