She rummaged in her drawer for her hair dryer and went to work on Chelsea’s hair. When she was finished, Chelsea’s naturally wavy hair hung in a thick cascade down her back. The color had come back into her face, and her breathing sounded normal. Chelsea said she was tired and opted to lie down for a nap. Katie left her sleeping and headed down to the rec room, wondering all the while how long Chelsea could go on without a transplant. She had noticed how carefully Chelsea conserved her energy. How hesitant she was about joining in activities. She hoped the surprise party was a good idea. That it wouldn’t sap her already failing strength. She
wished there was something she could do to make Chelsea’s day-to-day life less monotonous.
“Happy Birthday!” The group surrounding the foot of the stairs yelled. Katie was partway down, a few steps in front of Chelsea, who stopped, blinked, and stared open-mouthed at the decorated lodge lobby.
“For me?” she asked. “You all did this for me?”
“Are you surprised?” Amanda wanted to know.
Chelsea glanced at Katie, who beamed her a smile and shrugged. “We couldn’t let you turn fifteen and not celebrate.”
Katie led the rest of the way down the stairs, where the kids and staff waited. She had to hand it to Lacey. She’d done a great job on the arrangements. The place looked like a barn, with bales of hay stacked between tables decorated with red-checked tablecloths. The furniture had been pushed against the walls to create a dance floor in the center of the room, and a bluegrass band tuned up fiddles in front of the fireplace, which sported a gigantic birthday banner.
“I can’t believe you did all this for me.”
“Any excuse for a party,” Mr. Holloway said, offering her his arm. “Come see your cake.”
He walked her to a long table holding platters of fried chicken, a bucket of iced sodas, bowls of salads, and a cake decorated with a bucking horse.
“The cake’s a little corny, but it was all that the bakery in town could come up with.” Lacey sounded apologetic.
“I think it’s wonderful.” Chelsea’s eyes sparkled.
“We’ve got a minicarnival set up downstairs,” someone explained. “Let’s eat so we can go play.”
Katie had never been a fan of country music, but she decided that the band was outstanding. In no time, the leader had organized a square dance. In her group were Jeff, Amanda, and Lacey and another couple. Amanda pretended that she was only with Jeff, and Jeff could imagine that he was with Lacey.
All Katie worried about was Chelsea, who sat in an easy chair beside the dance floor watching everybody dance. In the girl’s face, Katie saw the envy of the dancers. For the physical energy she could never expend.
When it was time to descend to the game room and carnival, Katie offered to take the elevator down with Chelsea. “I probably won’t be able to play the games,” Chelsea said, sounding apologetic as they rode down in the elevator.
“They’re not strenuous.”
“I’m not very good at games because I could never participate in them.” She licked her lips nervously.
“What are you trying to say?”
The doors slid open, and Katie and Chelsea stepped out. From inside the game room, they heard squeals of laughter as kids tried their luck at the carnival competitions, as well as the standard video game fare.
“I’m just not a competitor,” Chelsea explained.
Katie couldn’t imagine such a thing. All her life, she’d thrived on competition. “But it’s fun to win.”
“But I can’t win. And the excitement isn’t good for me.”
“What a thing to say! How do you know you can’t win if you don’t try?”
Chelsea lowered her gaze. “You don’t understand.”
But suddenly Katie
understand. Chelsea had lived such a protected life for so many years, she’d forgotten what it was to feel adventurous. “You know, every time your heart beats fast it doesn’t mean that you’re going to pass out. There’s a difference between putting pressure on your heart from overexertion and simply having it race because of adrenaline output. Don’t be so scared.”
Chelsea’s gaze had shifted back to Katie’s face. “But I am scared,” she whispered. “I don’t want to flake out in front of all these people.”
“I’ll be with you. And you’re always saying how you wish you could do the things that normal people do.”
“But that’s the problem—I can’t!”
“Wait a minute. There is something down here that can give you an adventure safely,” Katie said as an idea struck her. “Come with me.” Katie led the way into the game room and up to the front of the line of the virtual reality game. “Birthday girl gets to butt,” she said, tapping the boy wearing the VR helmet. “Hand it over.”
“But I just—”
“Now.” Grumbling, the boy climbed out of the cocoon-shaped enclosure and passed the helmet to Katie, who clamped it on Chelsea’s head. “This game’s three-dimensional, and it has programs to take you anywhere—including Mars.”
Chelsea sat stock-still as Katie showed her how to work the controls.
“How’d you like to drive in a Grand Prix road race?” Katie shoved a cartridge for car racing into the control panel. She watched Chelsea’s face as the game sprang to life, knowing what Chelsea was experiencing. She’d been transported into another time and place, and with such reality that she’d become a part of it. “I—I can’t believe—” Chelsea whispered as the game beeped into activity. “Everything’s so
“But it’s only an illusion,” Katie said. “Feel this.” She pressed an object into Chelsea’s hands.
“Why, it feels just like a real steering wheel.”
“But it isn’t real,” Katie replied. “And that’s what makes it perfect for girls with lousy hearts.” She stepped back and watched as Chelsea tentatively gripped the wheel. “Have fun,” Katie said. “Have a wreck. You can’t get hurt, you know.”
And for the next half hour, she watched as Chelsea got caught up in a world of make-believe so realistic that it made Chelsea gasp, squeal, and laugh aloud. Katie felt pleased with herself. She’d opened up a realm of adventure that Chelsea could never have experienced any other way. Watching her, Katie realized that for the first time in her life, Chelsea was “running” and “jumping” and “soaring.”
She was safe. And she wasn’t scared.
While Chelsea continued to play the VR game, Katie tried her hand at some of the carnival games. She went to a booth decorated as a miniature fishing pond, manned by Jeff. He handed her a fishing pole
equipped with small magnets for hooks and said, “The fish are rigged with magnets too.” He pointed to a child’s inflatable pool. “Cast out and see what you snag. The color of the fish determines your prize. Gold ones win you a stuffed turtle.”
Katie flexed the pole and readied her aim.
Jeff took a furtive glance around. “We need to talk,” he said under his breath.
“I can’t get to first base with Lacey. I need some advice.”
Inwardly, Katie groaned. She didn’t want to be in the middle of this. From the way Amanda looked at him, Katie knew she still pined for him. How could Jeff be so blind? Yet, Katie also knew that Jeff wasn’t going to be interested in Amanda the way she would like him to be. “I don’t know what to tell you. Try using your imagination. Do something romantic.”
“It’s not a foreign word.”
“Maybe you’re on to something.” Jeff furrowed his brow. “This is going to take some thought.”
Katie felt relieved that he was taking the initiative and not depending on her. “Hey,” she cried. “I caught a gold fish!” Katie dangled her catch high above the pond.
Jeff fetched her prize and handed it to her. He said, “I might try out some ideas on you.”
“It’s not me you have to impress.”
“But you know her best.”
She almost said,
“Nobody knows Lacey,”
but thought better of it. Fortunately, other kids came up
to play the fishing game, so Katie slipped away. Deciding to take her stuffed turtle up to her room, she dashed upstairs, ran inside the room, and stopped short.
Amanda was sprawled on her bed, crying, and Lacey was standing over her.
HAT ARE YOU
doing to her?” Katie asked sharply, coming immediately to Amanda.
“Don’t yell at me,” Lacey declared. “I came in here and found her like this. Why do you just assume it’s my fault?”
“Sorry. That wasn’t fair.” Katie knelt next to Amanda. “What’s wrong? Are you sick?”
“I’m ugly and gross, and no boy’s ever going to like me.” Amanda turned her tear-stained face toward Katie. “Remember what I told you before? Well, no matter how hard I try, this guy doesn’t even know I’m alive.”
“This is about some boy?” Lacey blurted out. “You’re up here crying your eyes out over some stupid boy?”
“That’s easy for you to say.” Amanda sat upright
on the bed. “You’re beautiful, and boys probably fall all over you.”
Lacey shook her head. “Not so.”
Katie wondered about Lacey’s mysterious admission, but now wasn’t the time to pursue it. She turned to Amanda. “Look, I know you’ve been trying your best to get—”
“Don’t tell who!” Amanda cried, casting an embarrassed look toward Lacey. “I—I don’t want anyone to know.”
Lacey crossed her arms and tapped her foot in exasperation. “Oh, really, who cares? I’ve seen every guy here, and believe me, none are worth my time. And certainly not worth crying over.”
Katie snatched a tissue and handed it to Amanda. “Your secret’s safe,” she promised. “But Lacey’s right about one thing—you shouldn’t be up here crying when there’s a great party going on downstairs. You should see how much Chelsea’s enjoying herself with the VR game.”
“I’m acting selfish, aren’t I? This is supposed to be Chelsea’s big party, and I’m ruining it.”
“You’re not ruining anything,” Katie assured Amanda. “It’s just that this won’t help you any.”
“What’s the problem anyway?” Lacey wanted to know. “Why don’t you just go up and tell the guy you like him?”
“I couldn’t. I’d be too embarrassed. And besides, look at me. I’m almost fourteen, and I look like a little girl.” Amanda blew her nose and took a swipe at her swollen eyes with the soggy tissue.
“You don’t have to look like a kid if you don’t want to,” Lacey replied.
“What do you mean?”
“Yeah, what do you mean?” Katie wasn’t sure she trusted Lacey with Amanda’s fragile ego.
“That’s why science invented makeup.” Lacey put her hands on her hips. “I could fix you up. Make you look a couple of years older in no time.”
Katie remembered that Amanda’s parents didn’t allow her to wear makeup, but before she could remind Lacey, Amanda asked, “You could? You could show me how to look older?”
“In a heartbeat.” Lacey dragged Amanda over to the dresser that stored her stash of supplies.
“I don’t know—” Katie said, tagging behind.
“I’m not going to make her look X-rated,” Lacey said. “Just some subtle changes. It’s no big deal.”
“Will you help me?” Amanda sounded so hopeful, Katie didn’t dare nix the project.
“When I get finished, this guy will be tripping over himself to get to you.”
Amanda smiled shyly. “No offense, but no one can work that kind of miracle.”
“Lacey Duval can.”
“Then go for it,” Amanda begged. “Will you stay with us, Katie?”
Katie wasn’t sure how to react. She didn’t want to spoil anything for Amanda. Or for Lacey. It was the most enthusiastic and interested in anything or anybody Katie had seen Lacey since her arrival at Jenny House.
Lacey ushered Amanda into the bathroom with
one hand and scooped up her tray of cosmetics with the other. Katie padded after them.
“You should restyle your wig,” Lacey said, seating Amanda on the closed lid of the toilet. “Let’s go with a side part and put a big clip in it.” Her fingers worked deftly, and soon Amanda’s artificial hair had been swirled to one side and clipped with a colorful barrette. The effect made her look more mature.
“Cool.” Amanda said, seeing herself in the mirror. “Now what?”
“Now we get down to basics. Watch carefully, because you’ve got to learn to do this yourself. It takes practice.” She smoothed compact powder on Amanda’s face. “You need to find your own special shade, but this will have to do for now.”
Katie watched, fascinated as Lacey’s fingers, sponges, and brushes went to work. She swept pale pink blusher across Amanda’s cheeks, nose, and brow. She dabbed on plum eyeshadow, then artfully smudged it until the color was subdued. She carefully outlined the upper lids of Amanda’s already large brown eyes, making them appear even larger.
“You’ve got great eyes,” Lacey remarked. “Play them up.”
“Chemo took my lashes and eyebrows,” Amanda explained. “They’re just now growing back.”
“Then we’ll work with what’s here.” Lacey lathered the stubby lashes with black mascara and curled them with an eyelash curler. With feathery strokes, she penciled on new eyebrows. Last, she dug through a pile of lipsticks, trying on several shades before selecting a rosy plum. A layer of gloss went on top of
the color. She stepped back and surveyed her handiwork. “So, what do you think?”
Amanda’s face broke into a thousand-watt grin when she saw her reflection in the mirror. “I look fabulous! Don’t I, Katie?”