I sneak around the bedroom looking for monsters in all the typical hiding places. “Ah-hah!” I say, throwing open the closet door and shining my flashlight into the black hole. “Be gone with you, monster! You’re banished from this room!”
Seven year-old Sarah sits on the bed in Eyeore p.j.’s clutching her pillow. She holds one hand over her mouth, stifling the laughter that’s threatening to escape.
Another quick glance in the toy box and I turn to face her. “It’s done, my Princess,” I say with a gracious bow. “The monsters in this room have all been vanquished. None will disturb your slumber tonight.”
“Oh, thank you, Sir Scott!” Sarah says, jumping up. “You’re very brave.”
“Will Your Highness honor me with a kiss this evening?” I scoop Sarah into my arms and tickle her until she can’t breathe and we both collapse onto the bed.
“I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you too, Princess.”
It’s our favorite bedtime ritual. I’m the valiant knight, defending the castle and making the world safe for my Princess. If only things were that simple. I would do anything for that little girl; I would fight to the death for her, but there are some monsters I’m simply not armed to battle.
“A story now, Daddy!” Sarah squeals, tunneling under my arm and onto my lap.
I know we have a long drive ahead of us tomorrow morning, but I find myself wanting to make tonight last as long as possible. “Alright. You pick out a story, and I’ll go get Mom.”
“Hooray!” Sarah cheers and bounces off my lap toward her bookcase in search of the perfect tale.
I slide off the bed and head down the hall. I see my wife standing by the living room window, her forehead pressed against the glass. Watching her, I feel even more helpless against this monster that’s invaded our lives. I wrap my arms around her waist and kiss the back of her neck. “Hey, beautiful.”
She lifts her head and presses her palm against the window. “Do you remember when we first moved here, Scott? When Sarah was still in diapers, and we talked about the great childhood she would have out here in the country, just like I did?”
“I remember, Mary.”
She turns around and buries her face in my chest. “I can’t believe this. I’m so scared about tomorrow.”
“Shhh, baby.” I stoke her hair and fight to keep my own fear safely at bay. “Everything’s gonna be alright.”
I want to reassure her, to reassure myself that this is all a bad dream. Tomorrow morning we’ll wake up and spend the day at the park, not at Children’s Hospital, not watching them stick a needle in our daughter’s hip.
I can’t believe it’s only been a month since the body aches first began. That day the school nurse called now seems like a lifetime ago. “Sarah’s been acting sick all morning, Mrs. Nelson, and she’s running a fever.”
Mary brought Sarah home and put her to bed, baffled by the onset of the illness. “I had no idea, Scott. She was fine when she left this morning.”
“It’s just the flu,” I told my worried wife. “Kids get sick. It’ll go away as quickly as it came.”
Mary made an appointment with the doctor. “It’s flu season,” he said. “Plenty of fluids and lots of rest is the best prescription.”
But two weeks later, the fever still raged. It was four in the morning when Sarah came into our room, weak and flushed. “Mommy, I don’t feel good.”
“Jesus, Scott!” Mary was suddenly wide awake. “She’s burning up!”
The doctor told us prolonged symptoms like this were unusual in a young child. “I want to run a blood test,” he said. “Just a precaution.”
“What kind of blood test?” I asked.
“I want to do a cell count. Just to rule things out.”
Mary squeezed my hand. I couldn’t bring myself to ask what he was trying to rule out. We found out soon enough.
The next week we were back in the doctor’s office. “Sarah’s test was abnormal,” he told us. “An elevated white count. I want to do another procedure. I’ve scheduled a bone marrow biopsy Saturday at Children’s.”
“Oh God,” Mary moaned.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Children’s Hospital? A biopsy for what?”
The doctor put his hands together and looked me straight in the eye. “Symptoms like Sarah’s often indicate leukemia.”
I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. Everything blurred together after that. The doctor tried to comfort us. “Children’s is one of the premier childhood cancer treatment facilities in the country. This type has an 80 percent cure rate.”
I took the brochures. Acute lymphocytic leukemia. Childhood leukemia. There had to be some other explanation. “But you’re not sure, right? I mean, that’s why we’re doing the test. Sarah might not have this, right?”
“I just want you to be prepared. Let’s take this one step at a time. First the biopsy, nine o’clock Saturday morning.”
One step at a time. That’s all we can do. And for now, it’s still Friday night. I look down at my wife in my arms and take a deep breath. “C’mon, Mary,” I say, kissing the top of her head. “I promised Princess Sarah a story before bedtime.”
As if on cue, Sarah appears with her book in hand. “Are you two kissing again?” she demands.
Mary laughs and quickly dries her eyes. “Uh-oh. Looks like we’ve been busted.”
I turn around toward my daughter. “I guess you caught us, Princess. Now, go get back in bed; we’re on our way in.” I raise my arms above my head and pretend I’m going to chase her down the hall.
“It’s story time!” Sarah shouts, racing back to her room.
Mary leans against my shoulder. “Look at her. She can’t be sick.”
“No,” I tell us both, “she can’t.” I wrap my arm around Mary’s waist and pull her body tight against mine. “Let’s go,” I whisper. “It’s story time.”
Carmen Adair lives in Washington State. Her writing has appeared on Opium, insolent rudder, the-phone-book.com, Green Tricycle, and Cautionary Tale.