For Anna, walking through the oncology ward was like walking through a whole night of bad dreams. As she passed empty beds and heard the quiet and all too familiar sounds of the monitoring machines at work a host of bad memories leapt out at her. They belonged only to her past, they held no claim on her anymore, but the echoes of old terrors and pains hadn’t faded away despite the decade that separated her from laying in one of those beds herself and hearing those monitors tick away her fading life.
That she came bearing good news gave her strides purpose and strength but there were too many full rooms she had to pass by for her to retain any illusion that the second chance she carried wasn’t just as needed by so many others.
“The Garcias will be happy to see you,” Chantel, Anna’s primary contact among the nurses, said.
“Getting to present news like this is it’s own reward,” Anna said. “I feel like you should be the one to give it to them though.”
“I think Maria will believe it more if it comes from you,” Chantel said. “I’ve had to tell her that a shot wouldn’t hurt too much one too many times now.”
They arrived at a room where a family had gathered around a young girl who was hooked up an IV.
“Auntie Anna!” Maria said as soon as she caught sight of Anna’s white hair. “Did it come in yet?”
“Maybe,” Anna said, allowing a heartfelt smile to crack the frown that had clutched her lips. She waggled an envelope without looking at it, before smiling again and passing it over to Maria directly.
“Is it good news?” Sylvia, Maria’s mother, asked.
“Yes,” Anna said. “Maria’s tumor matched the genetic profile they were looking for. She’s a viable candidate for the gene therapy treatment.”
There was a round of cheers from the family, excepting only Syvlia who was too overcome to speak. She turned to sit on the bedside chair, covering her eyes, as silent sobs of relief shook her shoulders.
“This means I’m going to get all better right? So I can take ballet then, can’t I?” Maria asked.
“Get well is still going to be a journey, it’s still going to take a lot of work and being really brave to get well” Anna said. “But this is like putting you in a race car!”
“What about a motorcycle?” Maria asked. “You said you ride a motorcycle, and you beat your cancer, so I want to be like you!”
“You’ll have to ask your mom about riding a motorcycle,” Anna said. “But I think we can arrange for some ballet training sooner than that.”
“How soon?” Maria asked, with just as much patience as a healthy six year old would have shown.
“I don’t know mom,” Anna said, turning to Sylvia, who had recovered but was still torn between crying and smiling, “Think you can spare her tomorrow afternoon?”
“What? So soon?” Sylvia asked.
“Well, the Bolshoi is only going to be in town for a couple of days,” Anna said, to which Maria squealed in delight.
Plans immediately began to be formed around seeing the world famous ballet company, which let Anna step out of the room with Chantel to give the Garcias time to absorb the happy news they’d been given.
“It’s days like this that make it worth it,” Chantel said, the proximity to the Garcia’s joy putting a warm smile on her face.
“I wish I could do the same for everyone here,” Anna said. “No one should have to fight a battle like that.”
“Yeah, but remember, we are fighting it,” Chantel said. “I don’t come in here every day because I have a ward full of people dying on me. I come in because little by little we’re beating this thing. I’m not going to lie, some days we don’t win, and those are hard. But every year we make things a little better. Used to be nobody walked out of a place like this. Now? It happens more often than it doesn’t, and that matters. Each time we win it matters, and each time we lose we grieve, but we keep moving forward and someday we’re going to kick cancer’s ass so hard that it won’t be any worse than getting the sniffles.”
“The future you see is wonderful, I want to be a part of it,” Anna said. “Until then though, if there’s anyone else like Maria who needs some help getting through all the red tape and financials, don’t hesitate to call me ok?”
“Of course,” Chantel said. “I already got my second chance, gotta make sure to share the love as much as I can.”
Zoe was waiting for Anna in the parking lot, the rental car purring as Zoe pulled it into place just as Anna reached the sidewalk pick up point.
“You look a little more relaxed,” Zoe said. “I take it Maria was happy with the news?”
“It’s hard to say if the treatment was the real winner, or the backstage access with the Bolshois,” Anna said. “Thank you for setting that up.”
“Thank you,” Zoe said. “It’s nice to get to use my connections for something good for a change.”
“One little signature and you could be doing this sort of thing all the time,” Anna said, buckling in as Zoe pulled away from the curb.
“It’s tempting,” Zoe said, traffic parting for her as though she were a visiting head of state. “You’ve made a wonderful case for the virtues of your club.”
“But not wonderful enough?” Anna asked, knowing the answer but curious as to the reason.
“Perhaps too much so,” Zoe said. “Your damnable honesty is wearing off on me. I’m finding it harder to deceive myself than it used to be.”
“What deception can you no longer cling to?” Anna asked.
“When I worked for PrimaLux, I convinced myself that what I did was what anyone would have done. That my actions were right and necessary for the circumstances I was in,” Zoe said. “There was just enough truth in that to shield me from the deeper reality. I didn’t have to see that I was happy to play the game and destroy those who could present a challenge to what I held because I value myself above all else.”
“That doesn’t need to be mutually exclusive with giving to others,” Anna said. She sought for a feeling of disappointment but her heart knew Zoe well enough after months of companionship that there was no surprise in Zoe’s refusal to join the Second Chance Club. All that rose from the depths when Anna looked into her heart was a subtle pleasure at seeing Zoe’s growing awareness of her own desires and truth.
“Yes, but while I find acts like helping Maria delightful, I know it’s not what calls to me,” Zoe said. Her easy tone spoke of confidence and certainty, but she had worn those feelings as a facade for so long that they were as true as any other element of her persona. In a few lingering pauses though, Anna could hear the whispers of worry that crept in the shadows of Zoe’s mind.
“Have you decided what lies ahead for you then?” Anna asked. Zoe had drifted after the fall of PrimaLux, content for a while to watch life as an outsider after Anna had cracked the foundations Zoe’d built a career and life upon.
“I enjoyed being your rival for the brief time we fought,” Zoe said. “So I think that’s what I’m going to do again.”
There was a sly undercurrent to her words. It carried both an unspoken challenge and a wordless hope.
“Interesting,” Anna said. “I suppose you could pick up the piece of PrimaLux, weld them back together into a small and yet no less dangerous entity, but I believe you’ve moved past that.”
Zoe was silent but her smile confirmed Anna’s statement.
“You want to form your own club then?” Anna said. “One that will outshine the Second Chance Club and all the work I do?”
“You’ve shown me how rewarding helping people can be,” Zoe said. “I can do the same, but I need to be helping my people. I don’t mean to own them. I mean for them to be my people because the effort comes from me, because I have chosen to include them in the world I’m building.”
“And what about those you chose to leave out?” Anna asked.
“To win, I can’t leave out anyone who needs me,” Zoe said. “The people aren’t what is important to me though. Their happiness is simply the coin I can collect to compete with you.”
“And what happens if you should win?” Anna asked. “Will that be the end of your good works?”
“I can only win once we are both passed on,” Zoe said. “So yes, once I am gone my works will end and a final tally can be made. It won’t balance out what I did for PrimaLux, but that won’t take away from the victory I intend to claim.”
“My best part in your life will be as an enemy then?” Anna asked, unsure of the answer she was hoping for.
“No,” Zoe said. “As a rival. I…you are not someone I want to be enemies with.”
“Have a left you afraid of me?” Anna asked.
“I’m not afraid,” Zoe said, “Except of losing you.”
“I’m not sure we can ever be just rivals,” Anna said, and saw a flash of worry ripple across Zoe’s face. “I have friends I am close to, people who are dear to me, but there are only a few that I’m able to invite into all the parts of my life.”
“Is that what I am to you?” Zoe asked, her voice softer than it had been.
“I think I would like to see if you are,” Anna said. “If you’re inclined to be both rivals and something more?”
Zoe relaxed and allowed a sunny smile to lit on her lips.
“I believe I am,” she said. “Being your rival inspires me to be more than I am and whatever our ‘something more’ might be, I think I’d like to discover it with you.”
Anna was late the next morning getting to the Second Chance Club’s staff meeting. That proved to be fortuitous as it meant that Tam had the extra time she needed to assemble the presentation they were reviewing.
“Sorry,” Tam said, and clicked ‘Send’ to deliver the slides to everyone else’s laptops. “I got derailed on this for a bit dealing a bank standoff.”
“That sounds dangerous to tackle alone,” Val said, starting to review the slides.
“Oh, this was in Montreal,” Tam said. “I just gave some of our members who were on site the info they needed to talk the hostage taker down.”
“That is part of the reason I asked you all to come in to day,” Charlene said from the speaker phone in the center of the table they were sitting around. From the background sounds, she was still in Puerto Rico helping with the rebuilding efforts to restore power to the island. “I’ve been tasking you all, and Tam especially, too much lately.”
“Thanks,” Tam said. “But it’s ok. The work we’re doing really can’t wait.”
“That is also true,” Charlene said. “But it doesn’t mean you need to do it alone.”
“I’ve been bringing in the Club’s members on as many projects as I can,” JB said.
“They’re a resource we will continue to need to utilize,” Charlene said. “Ultimately however, we need more than they can provide. That is why I’ve been searching for candidates to form another team of associates.”
“We’re going to bring on another Tam?” Val asked. “Is there really anyone like that anywhere though?”
“No, not another Tam,” Charlene said. “You all have unique gifts and talents. None of you are replaceable. There are however different options for how a job can be done, and other people who can help carry the load that you’ve been shouldering so far.”
“Have you found any promising candidates yet?” Anna asked. The prospect of having some more free time than they’d enjoyed in recent months wasn’t entirely unappealing in light of the new phase her relationship with Zoe was entering.
“I have, her name is Constance Cruz, and I believe she can help relieve the strain Tam is under,” Charlene said. “There’s only one problem. As of noon today, she was reported missing from the dig site she was working at in Peru. In fact no one was found at the dig site at all when their supply van arrived. Just their tools and supplies. Everything else and everyone else was gone.”