Chapter 5:

The first roiling wave of reality landed itself heavily between Lonnie's temples. When he realized that the pounding was coming from inside his head, rather than outside it, he tried to bury himself once again in the blissful, pain-free oblivion from which he had risen. The effort proved futile, as his synapses began firing a slow but steady stream of information at him. None of the news was good – with every new sensation that rushed to him, one more body part seemed to be protesting in some way.

As he forced his eyelids open, Lonnie searched for some awareness of where he was or some memory of what happened to put him in this position. Stark, halting images flashed through his mind, as if illuminated by strobe light. A teenager in jeans and a t-shirt running ahead of him. A shout. A hand raised in his direction. An explosion of noise.

Lonnie stopped himself. 'Not now. Later,' he commanded his brain in effort to ward off the sinking feeling that accompanied his memory. 'I'm not supposed to remember this,' he thought. It was supposed to be a blank. He had a feeling, however, that more important issues lay ahead of him.

He let his mind wander down the length of his body, taking cautious inventory of what seemed to work and what didn't. Eyes? Fuzzy, but still seemed to be working. Arms? Both still there. Legs? Stiff, but seemed to be present and accounted for. More or less. As he explored the sensations coming to him, he realized he was holding a block of ice in one hand. Struggling to force stiff neck muscles to turn toward the end of his arm, he realized it wasn't ice; it was the cold, limp hand of his wife. If not for the mop of auburn hair, he wouldn't have recognized the faceless figure slumped over his bed side.

He tried to focus his thoughts on that arm, but his body seemed to be reacting very slowly to the orders his brain issued. He inhaled deeply, wincing at the stab of pain that permeated his chest and abdomen in response to his efforts. 'Ouch', he thought. Caution seemed to be the better course of action.

Slowly Lonnie let his eyes roam about the room. He wondered idly what day it was and how long he'd been lying in one place as he stared at the institutional green cinder-block wall in front of him. Several Styrofoam cups lined the tray-stand at the edge of the bed, each of which seemed to be nearly full of what he guessed must be very stale coffee, judging by the smell.

Before he could look any further, the door to his left opened, and Bubba Skinner entered the room. Lonnie opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came out as his lips formed Bubba's name.

Bubba's dark eyes grew wide with surprise and delight as he crossed the short distance to the bed. "Well hello there, stranger," Bubba smiled. "Good to see you."

Lonnie cleared his throat and tried again to speak. "How long?"

Quiet sympathy clouded Bubba's expression as he answered. "Five days, man. You had us worried."

"What happened?"

Bubba paused, regarding Lonnie closely. "You mean you don't remember?"

Lonnie shrugged one shoulder, immediately regretting the action as sore muscles protested the movement. "Don't know. Bits and pieces, maybe."

Bubba placed one big hand on Lonnie's shoulder. "Listen, now, don't you worry about it. I was just comin' in to check on you and let Laura know we've finally got our shooter. Austin came back to town early after she found out what happened. She's handlin' all the paperwork right now."

A ghost of a smile passed Lonnie's lips. "Took you five days?"

Bubba grinned hugely as he let out a snort of laughter. "If you're well enough to give me a hard time, I think you're gonna be just fine."

The noise finally roused the silent figure on the other side of the narrow bed. Lonnie watched as his wife raised her face and looked at Bubba. Ugly purple bruises stained the skin beneath her blue eyes. If he hadn't realized the seriousness of his situation before, the haggard, miserable exhaustion in Laura's expression would have certainly painted the picture for him.

She opened her mouth to speak just as Lonnie squeezed the frigid fingers still entwined with his own. Laura gasped and turned her face toward his as her eyes widened with surprise before rapidly filling with tears. "Honey, you…"

"Now, Lilabet, don't get upset. I'm okay. You know I hate to see you sad…"

"You…you're awake. You're okay, right?"

Lonnie's heart broke as he watched her chin quiver and tears slide down her smooth ivory cheeks. If only he could get his body to cooperate like he wanted, he'd take her in his arms and kiss away her sorrow. "Don't cry, baby," he said somewhat gruffly, fighting back the tears that pricked his own eyelids at the pitiful sight she presented.

She nodded resolutely, swiping the back of her hand across her damp lashes. "Okay. You're right. As long as you promise me you're okay, I won't turn into a sap on you."

Lonnie gave her a crooked smile before giving into the exhaustion that still pulled at the edges of his consciousness. He let his lids fall shut again, but squeezed his wife's hand so she'd know he was all right.

Bubba lowered his voice to a quiet rumble. "Say, uh, why don't I go get the doctor and let you two have a minute, okay?"

Lonnie cracked his eyelids once more, barely nodding as his wife looked back up into Bubba's face. "Thank you, Bubba."

When the door quietly sighed closed behind Bubba, Lonnie turned his head toward Laura again. "Hey," he said in a voice still broken from its long silence.

"Hey," she answered, fighting back more tears she'd promised him she wouldn't shed. "How do you feel?"

He thought it over. "Kinda like I've been shot." He paused, raising his hand to brush back some of the red tangles hanging around her face. "I can tell by lookin' at you it musta been rough for a while there."

She gave him a watery smile. "A little bit," she admitted through her sniffles. "But you had several churches prayin' for you on both sides of town, so I figured your chances were pretty good."

"That's good to know," he said. Wanting nothing more than to see some of her usual impishness return to her face, he added, "You really look terrible."

"I've been too busy to worry about silly things like primping," she answered.

He noted with some satisfaction that her next sniffle was more indignant than sad, and felt the corners of his mouth quirk upward a bit as she responded to his gentle ribbing.

Her eyes narrowed as she caught his smirk. She tilted her chin toward him. "Lonnie Jamison, you're pickin' on me. You're lyin' right here in this bed, after takin' ten years off my life, I might add, and you're pickin' on me! I don't believe it."

Lonnie tucked another stray strand of hair behind her ear before taking her hand in his once more and folding his arm toward his chest, pulling her down toward his face. "Still love me?" he asked.

No amount of effort could keep the tears out of joy from crowding behind her eyelids as she leaned forward and gently kissed him. "More than ever."

THE END

Review Stuff: End a/n's:

A/N: Just wanted to send a heart-felt thanks to everyone who's been kind enough read and leave some feedback. Your opinions are always welcome and never fail to surprise me. If any of you who didn't sign your reviews would ever like to chat, please feel free to drop me a line at annewithane61hotmail.com. I'd love to thank you personally for your kind notes.

Starcrossed: Thank you! I'm blushing. :D As I mentioned in my email, that muse is a frustratingly fickle thing. Thanks for reading, and then reading again.

The Power of the Book: What can I say, man? You amaze me, and inspire me with your talent and your wit and your good heart. I'd like to someday be even half the writer you are! I think that, yeah, you picked the right major. :D You don't mind if I hold on to Elimani for a while when he gets here, do you? I promise to return him in good condition. (wink!)

Wildchild: I hope the ending pleases you. Bubba doesn't seem to want to have too much to do with this story – being a bit squeamish when it comes to all that mushy emotional stuff as he is – but I promise I've got much more planned for him in two upcoming tales. I hope you approve!

Ian's Mom: You're too kind. Thank you! If you haven't tried your own hand at a "Heat" story yet, I strongly encourage it. It's lots of fun, and definitely a challenge, and kind of addictive in its own way. LOL

A Fan: Thank you so much for your kind words. Your note truly made my day. Thank you for the good school-related wishes. I can't wait to embrace this next adventure (and hopefully I'll finally decide what I want to be when I grow up)!

Meg: I share your thoughts about Lonnie's background. I always thought he presented an interesting puzzle, and it was the puzzle that inspired my scratching bits of dialogue down on paper until a story appeared. I tried a couple of drafts at a chapter like the one you suggested; but – darn him – Lonnie wanted to be pretty quiet as I whittled away at this story. He seemed to want to be talked about, rather than do the talking himself. He's got much more to say in two upcoming stories, though, so I hope you'll be pleased with those.

HoPo: Thank you so much for taking the time to leave not one, but two reviews at the same time. I'm blushing. :-) You're notes made me grin from ear to ear all day. I hope you like the revisions, and the outcome. Thanks for reading!

A Little Fun Trivia: For those of you who are still with me! I make no promises that some of these won't appear in future stories. I got this stuff while watching the HotN marathon on Turner South over the President's Day holiday:

ODD Southern LAWS:

It Tennessee, it's illegal to shoot any wildlife animal from a moving vehicle, except for whales. Which, you know, is an important distinction in Tennessee!

In Tennessee, it's illegal to ride a bicycle without both hands on the handlebars.

In Memphis, Tennessee, it is illegal for frogs to croak after 11 pm. The First Amendment guarantees free speech, not the right to ribbit.

In Nashville, it's illegal for rollerbladers to tie themselves to moving vehicles on the highway. I'm so glad the legal system is there to pick up where common sense apparently leaves off.

In South Carolina it is illegal to fire a missile, unless you have a permit. What a shame. And here I was gonna break out my Saturn 5 this weekend.

In Tennessee, it's illegal to use a lasso to catch a fish. Boy, I don't know

In Alabama, it is illegal to wear a fake mustache that causes laughter in church. So, I suppose that means you could wear one that causes wailing and the gnashing of teeth?

In Oneida, Tennessee, it's illegal to sing the song "It Ain't Gonna Rain No Mo'."

In Georgia, it's illegal to carry an ice cream cone in your back pocket on a Sunday. So, Monday through Saturday are okay?

In Tennessee, it's illegal to give away free ice cream, but it's perfectly legal to eat road kill. I swear I'm not makin' these up. Ben and Jerry's can't do their national 'Free Cone Day' in Tennessee because of this piece of legislation. I'm surprised the people of Tennessee haven't risen up in revolt already. I'm just sayin'…