Read Please Don't Die Online

Authors: Lurlene McDaniel

Please Don't Die (2 page)

“I’ll be fine, Mom.”

“And should you get sick—” her dad suggested.

“I won’t get sick.”

She hugged them both, took Josh by the hand, and walked with him into the woods. Under the canopy of the green trees, he took her in his arms and held her fiercely. “I don’t want to leave you.”

“I’ll write.”

“Me too. I love you, Katie,” he whispered.

“I love you too.” She rose on her toes and kissed
him, then together they walked back to the car. She watched her father drive away. Watched until the car disappeared on the winding road through the woods. Until Josh’s face was only a speck in the back window and she stood alone next to Jenny House.

T
wo

B
Y SEVEN THAT
night, three more girls and two guys had joined Katie at Jenny House. Each had also received One Last Wish money, one as long as five years before, and each had done something different with it. The group was medically diverse. Katie had been given a new heart, Ashley and Carol Ann had been victims of leukemia, Jeff was a hemophiliac, Todd was fighting aplastic anemia, and Stacey had kidney disease. None of them seemed to know why they had been selected by JWC, and no one had a clue as to their benefactor’s identity.

They settled in front of the fireplace to get better acquainted. One of the staff had laid a fire, for although it was June, the evening mountain air was cool. Katie gazed into the dancing flames and
thought of Josh. She missed him and wished he could be with her.

“I thought I’d pop from curiosity about JWC,” Carol Ann confessed. “I can’t tell you what that money meant to my family and me. I stashed some of it away for college and blew a chunk on the world’s best shopping spree … in Paris!”

Ashley laughed. “I have two brothers, and I bought each of us new cars. Need I mention how good my brothers are to me now?”

“I treated my dad and me to the Super Bowl two years ago,” Jeff declared. “The rest goes toward college. If I’m still around.”

Katie listened with avid interest. Not only because it was fun to hear what others had done with their money, but because she felt a thread of connection with these strangers. She knew some of them were still fighting their battles with their illnesses. But she realized the thing they held most in common was an unquenchable desire to live. JWC had touched each of their lives and made a difference.

Katie was feeling at ease with the group when Richard Holloway joined them. He’d traded in his suit for casual slacks and a pale blue sweater. “I want you to feel perfectly at home while you’re here, so if you have
any
problems or concerns, please bring them to me directly. Our medical personnel have talked to each of your doctors, and so we know how to deal with any medical situations, but the emotional”—he glanced at each of them—“well, that’s part of the reason you’re here. And part of the reason why other kids have been invited.

“It’s our hope that you will become Big Brothers and Sisters to the ones coming in. All are sick and in need of friends.” Richard paused. “Questions?”

“When can we meet JWC?” Carol Ann asked what was on all their minds.

“When you get to heaven,” Richard said quietly.

Katie hadn’t known what answer to expect, but this one was a total shock. “Are you saying JWC is dead?” she asked.

Richard stood, walked to the fireplace, and gazed up at the portrait of the young woman. “Her name was Jennifer Warren Crawford, and she was diagnosed with leukemia at age sixteen. That was back in 1978, before bone marrow transplants, before so many of the new drugs and treatments were available.”

Katie’s gaze shifted up toward the gilt-framed canvas. Again she was struck by the girl’s ethereal beauty.
Sixteen
. That was how old she’d been when she’d received her new heart. And 1978. Why, that was years ago!

Richard turned to face the group. “Jenny was a unique person. She’d been born privileged. Her parents died when she was six, and she went to live with her paternal grandmother. The bond between the two of them was unshakable.” He leaned against the oak mantel. “When she was first diagnosed, her grandmother spared no expense in seeking a cure for her. There was none. In the hospital, she made friends. I can’t explain how those friendships made a difference in her brief life, but they did.

“Before she died, Jenny asked her grandmother to
help set up the One Last Wish Foundation. She wanted to give her money to people like herself—teenagers who were facing death.” Richard began to pace in front of the fireplace while he talked. “You know, if you ask the average person on the street, ‘What would you do if you had one hundred thousand dollars?’ everyone has an answer.

“But if you ask, ‘What would you do if you had one hundred thousand dollars
and
you were dying?’ …well, the answer often changes. It’s funny how the specter of death influences a person’s choices.”

Katie considered his words carefully. He was right. Last summer, when she thought she might die, she’d begged her parents to make sure her Wish money went to Josh for his future. The money had no value to her unless it could do something for somebody else. Suddenly, she understood Jennifer Crawford’s mind-set perfectly. JWC’s money had had no value to the beautiful young girl unless it could help others.

“So her grandmother set up the Wish Foundation?” Jeff asked.

“That’s right.”

“But why all the secrecy?” Ashley wanted to know. “And how did I get chosen?”

“The anonymity was Jenny’s wish. The selection process was complicated, set up by Jenny’s grandmother and my father, who administered the funds. Over the years, the Foundation has given away over five million dollars.”

Katie heard herself gasp with the others. “Are we the only survivors?” she asked.

“Not at all. Remember, the Foundation’s been giving away Wish money for close to fifteen years. Of course, as medical science has improved, so have the odds for living. I’d say that one in seven of the Foundation’s recipients are still alive.” For the first time, Richard grinned, and Katie was struck by his warmth and charm. She wanted to know what part he had played in Jenny’s life, but didn’t have the nerve to ask.

“You told me that this place”—Katie gestured broadly—“was a widow’s dying wish. Did you mean Jenny’s grandmother?”

“Yes. She wanted Jenny House to offer for you survivors all the things Jenny couldn’t have during her hospitalizations. She wanted it to be a refuge, a place for friends to meet, a ‘safe’ place where you could take time out from the realities of illness. Jenny House can’t make problems go away, but it can offer a brief escape.”

Katie thought the mission sounded idealistic and lofty, and she certainly found it appealing. It would be good to be with others who’d been at death’s door, who truly understood the unique perspective she’d experienced. Even as close as she felt to Josh, even though he’d endured the death of his only brother, he could never grasp what her brush with death had been like for her. And despite all the medications she was taking to keep her body from rejecting her new heart, there were no guarantees. If there was some way for her to reach out to the kids like herself …

“We have a state-of-the-art game room,” Richard
said, interrupting her thoughts and changing the course of the discussion. “Refreshments too. The rest of the staff is down there waiting to meet you. Maybe you’d like to go down with me and give it a try. After all, one of the main reasons you’re here is to have fun.”

Katie had plenty of questions, but she realized there would be time to ask them in the weeks ahead. It seemed her only obligation for the summer was to have a good time and to be a friend. She figured she could manage both.

Katie lagged behind the others as they started downstairs, pausing to glance back at the crackling fire, the stone wall, and the portrait of Jennifer Crawford. The girl’s mysterious smile beckoned. Jenny had signed her Wish letter,
Your Forever Friend
. Odd to call someone “friend” whom she’d never met. Yet Jenny had acted as
her
friend. Jenny Crawford had reached through time with her gift, and touched her life. She’d made it matter.

The next morning, Katie was up early, anticipating meeting the other girls assigned to her room. The night before, after meeting the staff, she’d played several games of laser tag, and as a natural athlete, she’d quickly scored high points. Yet it was the VR—virtual reality—games that had fascinated her the most.

She’d put on a special helmet, and suddenly, she’d found herself in a three-dimensional world, full of lifelike images and stereo sound, taking a kayak ride through white-water rapids. It had seemed so real, she’d felt the rushing waters and smelled the icy
foam. Her heart had pounded, and adrenaline had flowed through her as if she were poised to start a big track event.

“Awesome,” she’d declared, handing over the helmet to Jeff, who chose to fight off a fire-breathing dragon with a laser-sword.

In the morning sunlight, Katie put the fun of the previous night behind her and prepared for her incoming roommates. Sitting cross-legged on her bed, she scanned a paper revealing basic facts about them.

Amanda Burdick was thirteen, the youngest, and a leukemia victim in her second remission. Lacey Duval was sixteen and a diabetic. Katie didn’t know much about diabetes, but had never thought it life-threatening.

The last girl on her list was a fourteen-year-old named Chelsea James. Katie’s breath caught when she read that Chelsea was a lifelong victim of a congenital heart defect that had slowly worsened over the years. No surgery could help. In fact, Chelsea’s only hope for long-term survival would be a heart transplant! Katie’s sympathies went out to Chelsea immediately. Katie knew how it felt; after all, she had survived what Chelsea had yet to endure. She honestly believed she could offer encouragement to this girl. She looked forward to meeting her.

It was noon when Amanda arrived. She was a tiny, pixielike girl with big brown eyes that dominated her face. Her hair was a sleek cap, but once her parents left, Amanda tugged off the hair and tossed it casually onto the bed.

“A wig,” she explained with an impish smile at the
expression on Katie’s face. “The darn thing’s hot, and I hate it.”

Katie grinned, liking Amanda instantly. Amanda’s own hair was nothing but tufts on her bald head, yet it was obvious she wasn’t self-conscious about it. “Go for comfort,” Katie urged.

Just then, a blond girl wearing a knockout fashion ensemble swept into the room. She eyed them haughtily and announced, “I’m Lacey. But don’t bother being friendly. I’m not staying. Just as soon as I can figure out a way to blow this place, I’m out of here!”

T
hree

“W
HERE’RE YOUR PARENTS
?” Katie asked, unsure of how to respond to Lacey’s announcement.

“I left them standing downstairs, arguing. Honestly, what a pain! They argued on the plane all the way from Miami. Dad rented a car at the airport, and they fought the whole way out here. I got tired of listening to them.” Lacey paced to the window and peered out.

Amanda asked, “So if you hate their arguing, why do you want to leave?”

“I don’t want to be around them, but I sure don’t want to be stuck in this place either. I wouldn’t have ever come on my own. It was my doctor’s idea. He’s also my uncle, and he decided this would be a good place for me to spend the summer. He talked my
parents into bringing me. Although they sure didn’t need much persuading.”

Katie figured it was her job to encourage Lacey to stay. “It’s a really neat place. You should give it a chance.”

“Who wants to hang around a bunch of sick people?” Lacey said, turning from the window and crossing her arms. “I don’t even attend diabetic camp for a week. Why should I want to be stuck here for a whole summer?”

Just then, one of the staff entered, carrying a set of matched luggage. “Are these yours?” he asked.

Lacey practically ignored him. “I’m
not
staying,” she insisted.

“Where should I put them?”

Before Lacey could make a suggestion, Katie intervened. “Why not take the bed next to mine? Amanda won’t mind, will you?” She gave Amanda a pleading look.

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