THE VIKING TIME TRAVELER
Book 1 of the Viking Setstokkr Series
Washington State, Present
Becca thanked the doctor for the death sentence and walked out of the clinic. Her limbs seemed barely attached to her torso, as though parts of her might float away on the breeze. She concentrated on firming her muscles, taking control of the swing of her arms, back and forth. Her feet pushed into the earth, her toes into her black tennis shoes.
She pushed the button on her key ring. The lights on her Mustang flashed, and the doors audibly unlocked. The door handle, cool against her palm, sent a shiver up her arm. She opened the door, got in, tossed her purse on the passenger seat, and stared across the parking lot. Would any others leave that brick building today with news that their lives were over?
She gripped the top of the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white. No, not over. Not over yet. She took a breath and pulled her purse close enough so she could dig her phone out. She had said she would let Mom and Dad know the results as soon as she had them. She promised.
There were three texts. She opened the first one from Mom. Come for dinner tonight? Then two minutes ago, Call me as soon as your appointment is over! The last text, from her best friend, Lexi, came one minute ago. It was simply, ???
She pressed the image of the telephone receiver in the corner of the text from her mother. A quarter of the way into the first ring, her mother answered, “Yes? Becca, what do you know?” The words seemed to come at a deliberately slow pace, as though Mom had practiced so she wouldn’t scream the words into the phone when Becca called.
“It is cancer. It’s everywhere,” said Becca.
Her mother’s breath came out like the west wind. “So what’s the next step?”
“There is no next step,” she said. She paused as she gathered strength. “That’s it.”
“But surely chemo would help, or radiation…”
“No, Mom. Nothing.” Becca pressed her lips together. All the wishes she had for her life blew through her mind as though pushed by a storm wind. She thought there were years and years to squander—years for travel, for finding love, for having a family. Now her only wish was for more time. Years had become months. She had nine to twelve months at most.
“Oh, Becca!” Mom’s voice was choked.
There was a rattling noise over the phone like it was being pulled through a scratchy sweater full of electricity, then Dad’s voice said, “We should get a second opinion. That stupid Dr. Gibson doesn’t know anything. You’re strong. You can fight this thing.”
There was no point in getting a second opinion. Facts were facts. It was chasing a ghost to go looking for someone to tell you what you wanted to hear. There were people who came into her dental office all the time wanting something simple to take away the pain. All too often, they would take an antibiotic she prescribed to clear up an infection before a root canal only to cancel the procedure once the pain went away. Then they’d be back a month later puzzled at why the pain had returned.
“I’ll think about it,” she said to her dad.
“What’s to think about? I’ll ask around and find a really good oncologist. Someone who can actually do something for you.”
Her mother’s voice returned. “Why didn’t you let us come with you to your appointment? You shouldn’t be alone right now.”
Becca could hear the anguish in her mother’s voice. This is exactly why I didn’t want you to come with me.
“You’re coming for dinner, aren’t you?” her mother continued.
It was a thirty minute drive to Weybury. The drive would be nice, give her time to process, but the evening ahead with her parents and their grief would be exhausting. Perhaps she was being selfish, but she didn’t want to see the pain in their eyes. She had enough of her own right now; she couldn’t take on theirs, too. “I promised Lexi we would go out for dinner tonight.”
“You should be with family,” Mom said firmly.
“Another time, Mom.” She couldn’t dissolve into tears. There was a chance that if she started crying, she wouldn’t be able to stop. She couldn’t fall apart…
“We will fight this thing,” said Dad.
Sword drawn, ready to do battle. That was Dad. “I love you, Dad. I love you, Mom.”
“We love you, too,” said Mom.
Becca heard Dad sniff loudly. “I’m so sorry, baby.”
“Me too,” said Becca. “Bye for now.”
She hung up the phone. All the hairs on her arms stood out. Nine months. What would she do with her last nine months?
She texted Lexi. How about dinner tonight at The Evergreen?
Fantastic! How’s six thirty? Lexi texted back.
Great. I’ll meet you there.
So, you have good news?
Becca stared at the phone. She started to type No but then backspaced to erase it. She’d tell Lexi in person. She tucked the phone back in her purse and started the ignition. As she drove through the small town toward her house, she decided not to take a direct route. She had almost two and a half hours until she would be meeting Lexi. She parked the car next to the playground at Lester Park. She walked to the metal bench and leaned against it.
Two little kids and their mother were out in the sand that surrounded the swings and slide. The woman coaxed the young boy to come down the slide. His sister yelled, “Come on, Drew, it’s fun. Just push off.”
Becca’s heart ached at the sight of them. She would never go to a park with a child of her own. Before today, there was hope that was in her future. It hurt more than she thought it would to close the door on that possibility.
She turned and walked along the meandering path. She noticed the bark of the maple trees, gnarled in a way that seemed to hold secrets. She left the path and placed her left hand on the bark, warm in the spring sunshine and rough under her touch. It looked like a dead thing, shriveled and hard, but it wasn’t. How funny—she was the opposite. From the outside, she looked like a healthy woman with good skin and long dark hair, her whole life ahead of her. But inside, she was riddled with cancer. So far, it caused no pain but was undeniably, silently killing her.
She went back to the path and circled around to her car. She placed both hands on the roof. Parked in the shade, the car was cool, and the solidity of it comforted her. Yeah, it was a raw deal, but you have to play the cards you’re dealt.
Becca got in the car and headed for home. Tears streamed down her face. Suddenly she was sobbing. There were no definite thoughts, no exclamations, just tears. She pulled the car to the curb in the residential neighborhood. She was a hazard on the road. Maybe she couldn’t have dinner with Lexi. She found napkins in the glove compartment and used one to blow her nose. She felt fragile, and she didn’t like it. Not one bit. She was strong. Losing the fight but still strong. She wiped the last of the tears from her cheeks with brisk motions and shoulder-checked before pulling the car back onto the road. She still had time to process this and pull herself together before she met Lexi for dinner.
The Evergreen was the sort of steakhouse that brought to mind celebrations. No wonder Lexi had jumped to the conclusion that she had good news. Lexi, already sitting at a table, waved her arm in the air as Becca approached the hostess. Lexi looked like a pixie minus the wings. Her blond hair hung in loose curls to just past her chin, and she had the top pulled back in a clip.
“For one?” asked the teenage hostess, dressed in a short black skirt and dark green button-down blouse.
“No, I’m meeting a friend,” Becca said, pointing at Lexi and then starting toward her as the hostess smiled. Lexi met her with a hug that lingered for a moment. Becca was taller by at least five inches. She leaned her cheek on the top of her friend’s head then pulled away, and they sat.
“How bad is it?” asked Lexi.
Becca shrugged. “How did you know? I thought you assumed since I wanted to come here…”
“I did. But when you didn’t answer my text, I got worried.” She folded her arms and rested them on the table. “Then I could tell from the look on your face when you walked in.” She swallowed and put on a stoic look. “So, how bad?”
“About as bad as it could be. Cancer is everywhere. No hope for a cure, no treatment to…”
“No! Oh crap! No!” Her eyes grew sharp. “You picked here to tell me this?” Tears filled Lexi’s eyes and spilled over the center of her lids. “Was this your way of helping me keep it together?”
“No. Not consciously, anyway.” She was glad it would have that effect, though.
Lexi sat saying nothing for a long time, just crying and wiping her eyes with the napkins at the table. She finally managed to squeak out something about not knowing what to say until she blurted, “I want to rage and yell and scream.”
The waiter approached the table, holding leather-bound menus. He looked at Lexi and tentatively handed them each a menu. “Would you like to hear the specials?”
“No,” said Lexi sharply. The man turned and quickly escaped. “Tell me what Dr. Gibson said,” Lexi demanded.
“Nine to twelve months.”
“How can you be so calm? Are you in shock?”
“Maybe. And maybe this is what I look like in devastation mode. I haven’t been here before.” The word devastation seemed to radiate through her. Every muscle, every cell it touched was tainted and dulled by it. “I had a long hot bath when I got home from my appointment, and I made some plans.” She was actually amending her plans at that very moment. She had been going to ask Lexi to come with her, but the pity and sorrow on her friend’s face made Becca change her mind. This was something she would have to do alone. And maybe she would flip the whole purpose. “I’m going to give myself a retreat. Go up in the mountains somewhere. I found some cabins for rent.” Her first plan had been to have a secluded place for a good, long cry. She would wallow and order fast food and binge-watch television shows even though she wouldn’t live to see the end of the series. Lexi would have been an enthusiastic participant in her grief. Too enthusiastic. And suddenly what seemed indulgent and cathartic now seemed like a waste of the little bit of time she had left.
“What?” said Lexi, staring at her.
“I changed my mind. I’m not going to hide out in a cabin. There are things I’ve always wanted to do. I should do them.”
Lexi nodded indulgently as though dealing with an overtired infant that you didn’t want to set off into a full-blown tantrum or someone mentally unstable that you had to handle with kid gloves.
“Lexi. I’m going to live the last of my life.”
“What? A bucket list?” said Lexi. There was a bitter taint to the words.
“Kind of, but there’s only one thing on the list. I’m going to the Hebrides.”
“The Hebrides?” Lexi repeated. “Where’s that? Do they have healing hot springs?”
“I have accepted this, Lex. There’s no cure, and I’m not going to waste what little time I have left chasing one. The Hebrides are islands off the coast of Scotland. I want to dance on the shore with Scottish bagpipes crooning out a jaunty tune and hawk my wares at the Norse festival they hold.”
“I’ll buy all your wares, every single sand ball you have.”
Lexi’s words hit her like a slap. She knew Lexi didn’t mean it as anything but a compliment, but why would Lexi want more of the textured sand balls than she already had? Was she collecting mementos to remember her by? “It’s not about making a sale. At the local Viking fairs I’ve done, I made a bit of money, but it’s about the experience.”
A small smile graced Lexi’s tear-streaked face. “You are a wonderful Highland Dancer. That sounds lovely.” She pulled the black cloth napkin loose from around the silverware and lowered her face into it. “Oh, your poor little dance students.” Fresh tears came.
“I think I’ll put my dental practice up for sale,” said Becca.
“Hold on! You’re moving a little fast! Selling the dental office?”
“I’m not going to spend any more than a month making the transition. I have a few people who would be distressed to have a new dentist finish a root canal and things like that, but I want to live the last of my life in the sun.”
“There’s sun here in Washington. When it’s not raining. Or there’s California.”
She gave Lexi a look. “I heard about this festival years ago. It’s the holy grail of my Viking obsession. I always thought I would go there someday. They have a fair on one of the islands that lasts the summer. It’s Celtic and Norse and full of history and art and silly reenactments of Viking appearances and booths with crafts for sale.”
“I’d love to come and keep you out of trouble.” The sadness in Lexi’s eyes seemed to shoot out like laser beams. There would be no getting away from the fact that she had cancer if Lexi came along.”
“I think this is something I should do by myself.”
The waiter approached the table, sidling up carefully, his eyes on Lexi. “Are you ready to order?”
Both menus were still sitting on the table closed. “What’s the best steak you have?” asked Becca. “Whatever it is, we’ll both have that. Stuffed potatoes.” She looked at Lexi for confirmation, and her friend nodded. “And I don’t suppose you have haggis for an appetizer?”
“Hummus?” asked the young man.
“How about the artichoke dip?” suggested Lexi.
“Yes, I love that,” said Becca. She flushed as she met the waiter’s eyes. His five o’clock shadow was endearing and a little sexy.
The waiter smiled at her, nodded, and took the menus before leaving.
“Oh, Becca,” said Lexi. “I just can’t believe it. You, of all people. You eat healthy without being a crazy health nut, you are at the perfect weight without being a crazy dieter, you are active without…”
“Going crazy about it?” Becca finished.
“It’s so not fair. There are people out there eating bacon three times a day who never exercise more than getting off the couch to get a bag of chips out of the kitchen, and they aren’t sick.”
“Their time will come,” said Becca with a laugh.
“How long will you stay in the Heb…” She raised one eyebrow.
“Yeah. How long?”
“I don’t know. As long as the magic lasts. Throughout the festival for sure. I’ll open a booth if it’s not too late to get a spot. Dress like a Viking chick. Mingle with the Highlanders.”
“Do they have cell reception there?”
“I don’t know.” Becca had a moment of doubt. “It’s kind of in the middle of nowhere.” Did she really want to go so far away all alone? No, not really; but neither did she want to be around anyone who would remind her that this was a pre-deathbed trip. She had to be free of the mourning. She wasn’t dead yet. “But I’ll call you from a landline if I have to.”
The waiter brought the artichoke dip. It was in the center of a white enamel dish with pita chips shaped like triangles surrounding it.
“This sucks,” said Lexi.
The waiter’s eyes darted to Lexi, and his hand returned and hovered over the handle of the dish.
“Not this,” said Lexi, looking up at him. “It looks good.” When he left, they each dug a chip into the creamy, tart dip.
Becca’s phone pinged. She flipped it over to see the screen. Mom. Becca dashed off a quick text to tell her mother she was out for dinner and would call later.
“I know you have some debt,” said Lexi. “Will you be able to take a year off, maybe two or three…or ten?”
“I’m not going to make ten,” said Becca, looking up, “but you’re sweet to say that. Actually, my debt’s not that bad. Mom and Dad helped out a lot with dental school, so once I sell the practice, I’ll be living easy.”
“If you run low, let me know.”
“I mean it. I think you’re going to beat the odds, and when you find yourself outliving their predictions, you’ll be hooped. Maybe you should just hire a dentist to come in. Take a leave of absence.”
“It’s a thought. I’d continue to make some income while I linger.” She rolled her eyes.
“It’s really everywhere?” asked Lexi.
Becca nodded. “But I’m going to have a grand adventure before it wins.”
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