Sarah let go of her patient’s hand and watched as it settled back on the rumpled hospital blanket. Just yesterday Mr. Hinkley had regaled her with stories of his youthful heroics, of his time spent serving their country in Korea, and of the big, loving family that came after.
For more than eighty years he’d lived life as best as he could figure out how… and now?
He’d died alone in a nursing home, attended only by a nurse and her faithful therapy dog.
Her Golden Retriever whined and nudged the old man’s hand one final time before looking to Sarah for guidance.
“Good job, Lucky,” she whispered to the dog while pulling herself slowly to her feet. Sometimes she cried when residents left them. Other days she just felt numb. Whatever the particular case, saying that final goodbye never got any easier.
Not for Sarah, and certainly not for Lucky.
“Let’s go for a walk,” she told the dog as they click-clacked down the hall.
Lucky wagged his tail weakly. They both needed the warm California sun on their faces to coax the life back into them. It was part of their routine—treat, comfort, move on. If they mourned too long, then they wouldn’t be on their best game for the other patients who needed them.
And so many needed them.
Each new person who passed through this facility offered Sarah a new life to try on, a new person to become. Outside of her work, her life had been rather unremarkable. She’d always done what was expected when it was expected. She’d gone to school, received straight A’s, stayed out of trouble, and treated others with as much kindness as she could muster. Sarah was a good person, but not the kind anyone would remember when she herself passed.
She’d been working at the Redwood Cove Rest Home for the past four years now, and more than three of them with Lucky at her side. Of course, Sarah hadn’t originally planned to turn her pet into a colleague, but now she couldn’t imagine herself getting through the day without the big yellow fur ball with her every step of the way.
When she’d first approached Carol Graves about adopting one of her famous Golden Retriever puppies, Sarah had only wanted a companion. Once she had secured a degree, a job, and a home, adding a dog to the mix seemed the natural next step. And because Sarah always did her best in all things, she naturally chose the most respected breeder in the entire state.
Carol Graves only bred one litter per year—and only Golden Retrievers. She’d devoted her life to the breed when one such dog had saved her from drowning as a little girl decades before Sarah had even been born.
Most of Carol’s dogs went on to work in service, rescue, or even entertainment. In fact, when Sarah had first met the wriggling litter of two-month-old pups, she’d been immediately drawn to a frisky little female who was later named Star. Star now served as a co-host for the local cable morning show. Both Sarah and Lucky enjoyed watching her each day as they ate their breakfast.
But while Sarah had been drawn to Star, Lucky only had eyes for Sarah. Of course, the erstwhile breeder insisted the two were meant to belong to each other—and that was that. Lucky actually came with his name, too. Carol had named him on the day after he was born. She hadn’t expected the tiny runt of the litter to survive the night, but he’d surprised her and earned his name in the process.
Lucky had grown into a big, strong adult. No one would ever have guessed he nearly died the same day he was born. Maybe it was that near brush that made him so good with the hospice patients now. He’d been where they were going. He understood and wanted to help.
Which he did. Sometimes Sarah felt as if Lucky was the real medical wonder and that she was merely his assistant.
The Golden Retriever had a knack for knowing which residents were nearing the end, and he made sure they were never without cuddles in their final days. Once they passed on, he switched his attention to Sarah, who felt each loss deeply, no matter how hard she tried to toughen up.
Each death meant losing a patient, a friend, and a life she had tried on while enjoying all the stories and memories—temporarily adopting them as her own.
It was easier that way. Easier than finding her own life and making sure she lived it perfectly.
Just as the breeder Carol Graves had chosen her profession to celebrate a life saved, Sarah Campbell became a hospice nurse to honor the life she’d failed to rescue.
It had been her job to keep her grandmother company that summer day, to help her with anything she needed, and to keep her safe. Sarah had only been fourteen then—far more interested in talking with the attractive twin guys next door than in hearing another of her grandma’s rambling stories for the millionth time.
Sarah’s selfishness had meant she wasn’t there when her grandmother needed help remembering whether she had taken her medication or not. In search of her wayward granddaughter, she’d slipped out of the house and down the front stairs. The ice-slicked steps led to a terrible fall she was just too weak to recover from.
Sarah still remembered the scream. It hadn’t been loud and earth-shattering like you’d imagine, but rather meek—a tiny bird letting out a small, shaky chirp as it fell from its nest and crashed to the ground below.
That was the end of one life for Sarah and the start of many others. Yet no matter how many she helped in their final days, she could never quite find a way to forgive herself for letting her grandmother down, for killing the old woman she’d love with her negligence. Even moving clear across the country, to a place where the winter months remained bright and sunny, hadn’t alleviated her guilt. The only relief she had was in doing her best, giving her full attention to those who were left.
Just as she and Lucky had done for poor Mr. Hinkley. They’d done everything by the book. And still… still, she couldn’t shake the enormous feeling of disappointment.
As she passed through the automatic doors and headed outside into the facility gardens, Sarah wondered if she would ever have great stories of her own to tell, if her life would ever become more than a vehicle for her heavy guilt, if a change was coming… and if she would welcome it when it arrived.
* * *
Finch Jameson had nothing left—no family, no job prospects, and not too much money, either.
Had it really only been five years since he’d been named one of the top thirty business tycoons under thirty?
Yes—five long years.
He’d made that list exactly one time before he bought into his own hype and ruined everything. Now, instead of being among the top thirty brightest young minds in the country, he’d become the number one failure, the poster boy for wasted potential.
Growing up, all he had wanted was to take beautiful pictures with his endless parade of yellow disposable cameras. He’d once aspired to be a nature photographer—to see his name in big bold letters plastered across National Geographic magazine. Once he hit his teen years, his passion shifted to fashion photography and all the gorgeous models such a career path would bring trotting through his bedroom.
Then, in his second year of college, a stroke of genius took hold of him and refused to let go. With a huge vision and an even more massive team of helpers, Finch brought his big idea to life.
His fledgling social media network quickly overtook the flashing gifs of MySpace to become the go-to place for people to share their lives with the world. Reel Life Finch watched as MySpace Tom sold big and went on to enjoy a relatively anonymous and carefree life.
And he wanted that for himself.
He’d had his time in the spotlight and was ready to travel the world, taking pictures and enjoying every single moment of every day.
He eagerly agreed to sell Reel Life to the first person who asked.
As it turned out, he sold far too soon and for far too little. Seemingly overnight he went from “the one to watch” to the laughingstock of the free world. Luckily, neither of his parents had lived long enough to see his fall from grace. Still, Finch could have benefited from their love and support at the time when all the rest of his friends—and girlfriends—had abandoned him.
With nothing left, he abandoned LA to settle in the small coastal town of Redwood Cove. The money went fast, mostly due to a string of poor investments and bad advice.
“Why don’t you just come up with another idea?” everyone asked.
But Finch was fresh out of brilliant inventions. Reel Life had been the pinnacle, and now at thirty-one years old, his life was already on the decline. His blazing passion for photography dulled to the tiniest of sparks buried within a giant mountain of dying embers.
It was all just too painful, too much of a reminder of what he’d not only lost but willingly given away.
Somewhere in the midst of yet another day whittling away at the time between waking up and going back to sleep, a letter arrived.
Not an email, but an old-fashion letter scrawled carefully in large looping cursive.
Dear Finch, it read, I’m your great aunt Eleanor, and I’m dying. There’s something very important I need to tell you before I go. Please come see me at the Redwood Cove Rest Home. I pray this letter finds you well… and before it’s too late to set things right.
Finch read the letter three times over before folding it back up and slipping it into the torn envelope. A great aunt? No, that was impossible. His mother loved celebrating what little family they had. She wouldn’t have let them grow estranged from one of the few surviving relatives.
He’d never once heard of the Bartons. Why would this sickly old woman reach out to him? How could she have gotten her wires so badly crossed? Made such a huge mistake?
He had half a mind to crumple the letter and toss it in the trash. This clearly wasn’t his problem. But then again…
His imagination conjured a withered old waif of a woman staring forlornly out the window waiting for her lost nephew to return to her side. Could he really let her die thinking her attempt to mend fences had been met with cold refusal?
He didn’t owe this woman anything, but he also couldn’t live with yet another burden on his conscience. It was bad enough he’d tossed his own life in the crapper. The least he could do is help this sweet old lady find her family.
One good deed for the day, then he could return to his lackluster life.