by Gwen Hunter
As an ER doctor Ive seen a lot of patients die pass on as we say in the South but some deaths are worse than others. Much worse. Some stay with you, tainting dreams and nightmares for years afterward. Dreams that start with a bang and drag you into them feet first and screaming, like a roller-coaster ride in a fun house on Halloween. Or dreams that start slow and build slower, and then suddenly youre buried deep and unable to breathe. The dreams that were left after Deacon blew into Dawkins County were like the second, slow and miserable gathering into fierce and biting terror, roaring over me in a dark wave.
Change comes to all of us change of jobs, addresses, lovers, friends, thought processes, beliefs, and hopes. A strong person deals with the changes, rocks with the waves, bends with the winds, all that pseudo-psychobabble garbage. Dr. Phil and Dear Abby stuff. Me? I guess Im getting pretty good at change. In some ways, Im even starting to expect it, like it, roll with the punches. But the change that some people experience can be more diversity and variety and transformation than the average person can withstand and survive. Maybe.
Its my house, Ill whine if I want to.
I shifted on the hard front window ledge of my little bungalow-style house. The wood cut into my thigh muscle and ground against bones higher up. It was uncomfortable, but not enough to make me move away from the ice-cold window glass. In the background, the CD player flipped to a new disc, a remix of oldies.
Oh, Girl, came through the speakers over my head. Motown. Soft and rich and so full of broken soul it made me want to cry. Motown. The music my mother had listened to when she was on the down-side of a manic-depressive swing, halfway through a bottle of Jack Daniels Black Label, one new man or another kicked out of the house, and her party friends sent home. Motown. I should change the music. Put on a little seventies rock or pop. Maybe a little Carly Simon or Doobie Brothers.
But I didn't. I wasnt going to let my mothers response to music color my appreciation. Motown was my mothers crutch, not mine. I liked Motown. Always had. The window was frigid against my arm and the ledge had pressed a wedge of numbness into my flank. I should do something. Be industrious. Clean house, maybe.
Several boxes of clothes waited behind me to be sorted and put away. I was in desperate need of undies; the elastic on several pair had come totally off. For only the second time in my life I had tossed a handful of them into the trash. My stock was so low, I might be driven to hand wash some or buy more. There were underclothes in the one of the boxes, I was almost sure. And I would rather unpack than go shopping. I had lived in this house for nearly two years, and I still hadnt unpacked. Hated shopping. The only thing I had unearthed from the boxes were several sweaters, some tee shirts, boots and a burgundy down-filled coat that was too warm for southern winters. The coat was left over from my three year residency stint in Chicago, a place where winter comes early and stays late.
The song changed to BetchaByGollyWow by the Stylistics. Okay, maybe there was a strain of self pity in my thoughts to match the music, but then I was PMSing so I had an excuse. I could indulge for a moment. It was my house, I could whine if I want to. I grinned at the thought. The only thing that would have completed my totally female mood would have been a pound of dark chocolate and a half gallon of Bryers Fudge Ripple ice-cream drenched with Kahlua.
At the thought of real chocolate, I think I actually sighed, but the sound was covered by the music. All I had in the house was an off brand hot cocoa, the kind with hard little marshmallows floating in it it wasnt exactly Godiva. I sipped at my cooling mug, totally unsatisfied.
I wasnt a particularly introspective person. I didn't spend hours rehashing conversations that had gone wrong, or the fact that I got into the slowest line at the checkout and then got a surly employee instead of a smiling one, or that I had a flat tire while driving in a gale at rush hour. I didnt even agonize over personal decisions that had turned out bad.
Medical failures, of course, were a different matter, and I spent untold hours and days trying to figure out why I had lost a patient or why a particular medical procedure had not been successful. I was a contract doctor in a small rural emergency room, and failure on the job was not acceptable to me. But worry over personal stuff? No way.
In front of the house, down the road, trotted Miss Essie, until now the one constant in my life. She was part of the changes I was facing. Miss Essie had helped raise me, and suddenly she had left behind her slippers and her kitchen, had practically stopped baking, and had taken up with the Internet and emailing herb-loving friends. She had bought expensive walking shoes, power walking five miles a day. Moving like the energizer bunny dyed purple, she vanished through the bare bones of the leafless trees. It had been over a week since my last fresh baked bread.
Yeah, I was whining. Dang.
In the distance, just visible through the December-dead tree branches, a county cop car pulled into a neighbors drive. Soon after, another joined it. The CD changed to the Chairman of the Board, a soft pain of lost love. I rocked myself on the window ledge and watched the activity across and down the street, feeling intrigued in spite of myself. I put the cold cocoa mug on the window ledge and leaned closer to the glass, my breath making two little spots of condensation. Stoney, the cat who adopted me, jumped to the window ledge beside me and sniffed at the mug. Unimpressed, he walked up my leg and settled, curling tight against my waist.
Five minutes later, the County Coroner pulled in behind the cops and someone started rolling out crime scene tape. Crime scene tape wasnt used for natural deaths.
Maybe I had just found another reason to avoid unpacking or shopping. It looked like a neighbor had been killed. Straining like any rubbernecker at a roadside accident, I gawked up the street. And tightened all over.
I heard the strange pop/crack just under the beat of the bass from the speakers. Though I hadnt heard the sound in ages, I recognized it instantly. The sight of cops at a dead run from the house, sliding under the crime scene tape and behind their squad cars was the clincher. Gunshots. I shoved the cat from my lap, jumped from the window ledge and ran for the kitchen. Grabbed my medical bag off the counter. Locked the doggie door in back of the house to keep the dogs inside, and ran back to the front.
I was just in time to hear someone bang on my door, five pounding hits, followed by the sound of multiple sirens approaching. Cops and ambulances, two of each, raced beyond my front windows, and pulled across the street into the neighbors yard. My dogs were barking wildly, racing front entrance to back in alarm. More sirens in the distance. More gunshots. Five more pounding hits on the door.
I wrenched open the front door to see Miss Essie in her purple jogging suit, dark skin ashen as her hair in alarm, an arm raised to pound again. Somebody hurt. You get yourself over to help, Missy Docta Rhea. Cops shouted in the near distance, and fainter, the sound of screams, the sound of pain. But you take care, she said, shaking my arm, her eyes wide. You hear me? You dont get yourself shot!
I eased out between the noses of my two excited dogs and shut the door. I could hear them whining through the heavy wood. Im always careful, Miss Essie.
She snorted, the sound adamant disbelief. I grinned at her and shrugged. Our backs to the door, we waited several long minutes. No further shots sounded; no one was returning fire. Screaming, however, continued. One-handed, Miss Essie pushed me toward the neighbors yard. Before I could change my mind, I kissed the air near her cheek and took off up the street.
I had felt chilled sitting against the window, but a sudden hot sweat broke out on me as I ran, my Nikes slapping the pavement. Still no gunshots, I couldnt spot any cops; EMTs werent huddled at the back of the units. No one was in sight. It must all have ended while I was getting my bag. Except for the screaming. A high keening, like an animal newly caught in a trap, panic and pain. Increasing my pace, I turned to the left and jogged up the low hill.
A puff of dry dust erupted beside me. A pop/crack sounded almost simultaneously. To my left, a blur, and I had an instant to tense before impact. With a single, massive blow, I was airborne. We hit the ground hard. Breath exploded out of me. Electricity zinged through my back. We rolled into a slight depression, his body half-crushing, half-protecting me, over and over, into the ditch. I lost my bag. Felt a shoe come half off.
Are you out of your freaking mind! he shouted into the back of my head. You could have been killed.
When I didn't respond, he rolled me once, glaring into my face. I struggled, pushing, shoving at him, half frenzied, and he eased back a bit, his eyes still furious. Air hissed into my lungs, painful but wonderful, marvelous air. My chest spasmed once, fiercely, starting at the weak place near my spine, radiating agony around, then down into my legs. Tears fell as my body reacted to the impact and the loss of breath. I gulped, sobbed once.
Dont expect me to say Im sorry, Mark said, his tone rancorous.
Who cared about his apology? I shoved at his chest, still fighting for air. He eased his weight off, holding himself with his arms. After a moment he added, Knocked the breath out of you?
I nodded frantically, concentrating on the second breath, which shuddered along my bronchial tubes, an exquisite pain. Then the third. Finally a single deep intake of cool, December air, and a sense of safety, of relief. I wasnt going to die, which I knew intellectually, but try and convince your body when it cant breathe.
My back spasm eased. I felt a sharp sting down my side where a rock had bruised me as we rolled. A cramp in the thigh that had gone numb on the window sill. A sharp pang between my shoulder blades where we landed and he hadnt cushioned my fall closely enough. My fingers tightened on his arms.
Mark wasnt even breathing hard. A flying tackle through gunfire and he wasnt even winded. It ticked me off.
Did I hurt you?
I nodded, my breathing deepening, taking on a slower pace. My heart thudded in my ears. He gentled his arms around me, cradling me.
Its still better than being shot. He brushed the hair out of my face, his fingers harsh on my skin. Flicking. Angry green eyes met my tear-filled ones.
Why? I gasped, the sound squeaking out with the air.
Kid is still shooting. We got a team going in, but its not secure yet. Idiot.
I shook my head. No. My voice was starting to steady. Why?
I felt him grow still over me. A collecting sort of stillness, like a runner, tightening just before the sound of the shot starting the race. His eyes blazed into mine. I knew he wanted to roll over me and leave me in the dirt rather than answer. I could feel it in the tension of his body, see it in his eyes as the fury slid away, replaced with something else. The cop-look. That flat, barren expression they must teach in Cop 101.
You mean Skye. His tone was dead, cool, almost as harsh as his fingers on my face. His green eyes gone cold. Why did I sleep with her? Or why do I deny the baby is mine?
Either. Both, I managed. I wiped the tears away on the back of one sweatshirt sleeve. I was crying because I had taken a fall, not because I hadnt seen him in four months, and I didn't want him thinking I was. I made my tone as cold as his. Why didnt you come back that night? My voice was almost my own again, as cool as the look in his eyes.
Because when she picked me up from your house, she told me she was pregnant. Marks voice was expressionless, empty, unyielding, like his body lying against mine.
Skye was petite, brown-haired with blonde streaks, and green eyes. A crime scene tech who had a crush on Mark. And she was six months pregnant, claiming Mark was the father.
He had denied it. There was a paternity suit pending. It had made the rounds of the county gossip mill for months. I waited, staring into his face. He had grown a beard. I wondered if it was as soft as it looked. I kept my hands motionless on his arms, his jacket clenched tight.
I slept with her one time. While you were in the hospital after you got stabbed. While I was so pissed off with you for . . . He stopped, took a breath. I could feel it against my bruised ribs. When I thought we were over with. When I thought I couldnt even look at you again because every time I did I remembered you made me kill Taylor Reeves.
The breath caught in my throat at the expression in his eyes, fierce, hurting. A wounded animal. In an instant it was gone, his face blank. The kid cant be mine. Cant be. It was way more than six months ago. I used protection.
Like thats never failed before.
It isnt mine. It. Cant. Be.
So. You were pissed off with me and you went out and boinked the first thing that flashed you some skin? I didnt use other, less lady-like words. My mama would have been proud on her sober days. Thats real honorable.
Mark jerked as if Id slapped him. Maybe I had. Honor was important to well-bred southern boys. His eyes went flat green, like jade in a dim room. His skin flushed, muscles tightening as if to move away. I clenched my fists on his sleeves and pulled him even closer, our mouths almost touching. But it wasnt gentle. I could see his bared teeth behind the beard.
It wasnt the way I had intended this conversation to go, not the way I had envisioned it for the last four months, but a captive audience was better than any of the scenarios I had visualized. My ex-boyfriend couldnt get away. But I could see it in his eyes, that he wanted to. The cop look wasnt as much a barrier to his emotions as he needed. Another gunshot sounded. I jerked hard. Mark didnt even flinch.
I growled, And why didnt you come back? You owed me an explanation, Mark. And my key back. At least that.
Youre not getting your key back, he flared, tightening his arms at my back. I have to fix this, Rhea. I didnt want you dragged into it.
I am dragged into it. The whole putrid, obscene mess of it. First youre dating an ER doc, then youre the father of a coworkers child. According to the local wags, you were doing both of us at the same time. It sounded coarse and crude. I meant it to be.
The screaming became a heaving squeal from inside the house. And this little piggy ran wee-wee-wee, all the way home. Strange, the things that will cross your mind when youre huddled in a ditch with a man you might love and bullets are flying overhead. Another gunshot.
Mark ignored it. This time so did I. A tic began beside his mouth. I know. Im sorry.
The words surprised me. Mark was sorry? For what? We had covered a lot of ground in the last few seconds. The last night he had left my house, the night a fire raged in Dawkins County, destroying two homes and damaging four others, scorching acres of pastureland and taking twenty acres of dry timber, I had given him a key to come back. To come back to my bed. It was to be a first for us. A first time. A beginning of something stronger, something better.
But he hadnt come back. Hadnt called. Hadnt returned my calls to him. And then the rumor broke. He had gotten a coworker pregnant. Mark Stafford, straight arrow, a Beau in a world of Bubbas, had done the unthinkable and then denied paternity.
He said he wasnt giving my key back. What the heck did that mean. Wordless, I searched his eyes. His hold had gentled on my face, fingers tender, as if he had been denying himself a touch he craved, wanted to feel just that little contact with me. I was suddenly aware of our legs intertwined, his hips pressed against mine. I flattened my palms against his chest, pushing him away. It wasnt entirely effective. Something about men having better upper body strength. His mouth dropped and touched my lips. I jerked my head to the side, so angry that I wanted to hurt him. His radio crackled.
Capn, were ready to go in.
Mark slid to one side, his legs still draped across mine, his eyes on my angry ones as he found his radio. He looked amused, mocking, and resigned all at once. Ill send someone back for you. This time stay down till youre needed. Into the mike he said, Go.
And he was gone, leaving me lying in the ditch, my body aching from the impact of the fall. Bruised from rolling into the shallow depression.
(end of excerpt)
Gwen Hunters books have been sold in the USA, Italy, France, Germany, Holland, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, and the UK, where her best seller STOLEN CHILDREN (the UK title for the novel BETRAYAL) won the W.H. Smith award for best first novel. Gwen's latest book, GRAVE CONCERNS, is a lead title from MIRA BOOKS. Look for it in book stores January, 2004.