His head leaning against the bulkhead, Jake opened his eyes to the sparkling Pacific Ocean below him. He reached down to massage his calf muscle, trying to work the cramp out. He knew he should get up and stretch it out, but looking over at his sleeping neighbor, he decided against disturbing him.
Finally the spasm passed and Jake could check his watch. Seven a.m. Just another couple hours until he was back on American soil.
"May I get you something to drink, sir?"
Jake looked up to see the flight attendant holding a coffee pot invitingly.
"Black, please. Full lead."
She grinned and poured a cup for him. "Anything else?"
Shaking his head, Jake thanked her. He pulled his seat tray down and placed the cup on it. His PDA and a thick file labeled Kagawa—Tokyo joined his cup. Scraping his hair back from his forehead, Jake powered up the PDA. He still had to finish the arrest report on Akio Kagawa, and the letters of condolence for the families of two of his men. He wondered what the official details of their deaths would be. Too bad their families would never know they'd died in another country. Or that they had died in the course of taking down one of the biggest crime lords in the last quarter-century. That honor would be given to the CIA. Jake's team had been contracted just to gather the proof to make the case. Nothing more. Small comfort to the wives and children left in the dark.
Jake stared at the net results of the last nine months of his life. As soon as he landed in LA, he wouldn't even have this much for proof. The firm had a courier waiting to receive his report and files when he landed. The sooner he submitted his final report on the Tokyo assignment, the sooner he'd be out of a job.
Jake had just finished his mission report when the captain announced they'd be landing in Los Angeles within the half hour. Replacing the folder and PDA in his briefcase, he removed the single non-work item from it. A teenaged girl in a coat smiled out of the photograph. She was standing a little sideways, her arms spread to showcase the lit Christmas Tree on the far side of the Rockefeller Ice Rink. Jake smiled at the memories of their last visit.
A flicker of dark blue caught his attention. The flight attendant was walking the aisles on her final call. As she passed him, Jake handed her his empty cup. Reaching for it, her eye caught on the picture.
"Pretty girl," she said. She looked at Jake for a moment, then back at the picture. "Let's see, she's what? Fourteen? So I'm guessing she's your sister."
"No, my daughter."
"Daughter? Wow, I had totally pegged you at like 27."
Jake laughed. "I'm a few years older than that."
"Well, I'd better get back to work. Let me know if I can get you anything else before we land."
Taking advantage of the hour layover at LAX, Jake had finally changed into jeans and a t-shirt. Debating carefully, he folded his slacks and stuffed them into his carry-on. After a bite of breakfast at one of the over-priced restaurants he was ready for the two and a half hour flight to Denver. There he'd get his car from the storage lot and head for home, finally.
Looking through the open back door into the kitchen, Jake saw his mother at the stove, fixing lunch for her family. As quietly as he could, he opened the screen door. The creak of the spring gave him away, just as it always had. Gail turned around, and immediately forgot about dinner when she laid eyes on Jake. Tears clouded her voice as she reached up to hug him.
"Jake! Honey! Oh, you're home!"
"You're choking me, Mom" he said, laughing, as he tried to ease air back into his lungs.
"Thought I heard an annoying voice!" Eric said from the hallway. He stepped forward to greet Jake.
Looking over Eric's shoulder, Jake saw his father come in from the living room. They looked at each other for a moment; then Jake stepped into Johnston's welcoming embrace.
"Glad you're home, son."
After Eric and Johnston returned to Town Hall, Gail sat Jake down at the kitchen table with a glass of cold milk and a plate of freshly baked cookies. She took the chair next to him and waited. Jake tried unsuccessfully to keep the grin off his face.
"Don't laugh at me."
"I'm not laughing at you, Mom. I know what you're trying to do."
"And what exactly would that be?"
"Cookies and milk could make me spill my guts when I was five. I'm not so easy to crack now."
"Fine, you caught me" Gail admitted. "But you can't blame a mother for trying. At least tell me how long you plan on staying."
"I'm home for good, Mom" he says, stuffing a cookie into his mouth.
Gail watched as he polished off the four large cookies and his milk. When he finished, he picked up the plate and the glass dishwasher, rinsing them before he placed them in the dishwasher. She noted the changes in her son; he certainly wasn't the headstrong boy she'd raised. Nor was he the determined young man that had accepted responsibility for an unexpected child sixteen years ago. The last five years he'd been on special assignments had tempered him into the man she never thought he'd be. Even though he didn't talk about his work to her, Gail knew it was far more stressful than he allowed. He needed to remember why he chose to save the world every day. She was grateful that he had been able to spend time with Elizabeth during the summers and last Christmas. And she was grateful that he was home in one piece.
Feeling his mother's eyes on him, he turned around to face her. Another grin danced across his face.
"How long are you going to stare at me?" he said jokingly.
"Sorry. It's just… I've waited for this day for five years and now you're here. I just wish you had warned me. I would've made sure to have something more for dinner than spaghetti."
"Mom, it's no big deal. I love your spaghetti."
"So, did you tell Elizabeth you were coming home?"
"97? Geez, I study my ass off and the best I can do is a 78." Danielle complained.
"Math comes easy to me," Elizabeth replied, shrugging. She kept an eye on the clock over the teacher's head as he droned on. These last few minutes of the day were always too slow.
"Yeah, that and every other subject we're studying" the boy sitting in front of Elizabeth said, turning around to face her. Before she could answer him, the bell finally rang, signaling the end of the school day. They gathered their books to head for the door and the freedom of the weekend.
"Ms. Green, can I have a word with you?" the math teacher, David Cutler, asked as she passed his desk.
Her friends gave her their usual commiserating looks as they kept going. Elizabeth arrogantly leaned against a desk in the front row. She knew she'd have to wait until the stragglers had left and Cutler had erased the boards lining the interior walls. Hell, she could probably even deliver his lecture for him. It wasn't like it ever changed. When the room was empty, Mr. Cutler turned to face her.
"I wouldn't be too happy with that 97 if I were you. Attendance and participation do count for 20 percent of your final grade."
"School has only been in session for two months and I haven't missed a single day of your class. And I never missed one of them last year, either," she shot back.
"Participation includes giving me your undivided attention during class. Nor does it leave room for you to fall asleep in my class on a regular basis. This, let me remind you, is the same problem we had last year."
"It would only be a problem if my grades were slipping. Last time I checked, a 98 average in this class still falls in the near-perfect range."
Realizing that the argument was futile, Mr. Cutler said, "I will be speaking to your father about this. Today."
Elizabeth rolled her eyes, saying "What else is new?"
"Just because your father is mayor of this town does not give you special privileges. I'm not going to ignore your clear disregard for this class."
Elizabeth had had enough. "Can I go now?"
"No. I'm not finished yet."
She sighed and shifted against the edge of the desk.
Ten minutes later, Elizabeth finally left his classroom. She couldn't believe Cutler. No, actually she could. For the past three years he'd insisted on comparing her to her older brothers. He was just like everyone else in Jericho, waiting to see the baby Green fall from grace.
Eric had always been the golden boy in school. He'd never made any trouble and had been voted 'most likely to succeed.' She got that one. She and Eric were only barely on the same planet. But to equate her to Jake, Jericho's bad boy? C'mon, he'd raised more hell than even Grandpa in his day. The old biddies downtown still clucked their tongues over Johnston Green's wild son, even though Jake had straightened himself out before she was born. There was no way she'd ever get away with half the crap he'd done.
Outwardly she didn't let anyone realize the constant comparisons bothered her .Secretly, she wished she could say the magic words that would get them all to stop. She knew part of Jake's biggest secret, something too big to even tell Mom and Dad. Too big for anybody, according to Jake. And he placed a lot of faith in her to keep what she knew safe. She wanted to tell everyone about the lives her big brother had saved, the terrorist attacks he'd thwarted, the evil men he helped arrest. But he trusted her to keep quiet. And if there was one person's trust she didn't want to lose, it was his.
Still, she often found herself wondering what it would be like for the town to see him as the hero he had become. Maybe, she hoped, one day they would. And on that cold day in hell, maybe they'd see that she really wasn't as misguided as they all thought she was.
Danielle was waiting for her by the locker they shared. "So what the hell did Cutler want this time?"
"Same thing as always. To compare me to the reckless and disrespectful teenaged Jake." Elizabeth answered sarcastically.
Next to her, Michael Donovan was rummaging through his disorganized, messy locker. "Didn't we have history homework?" he mumbled.
"Yeah, we have to read the chapter on the French Revolution and answer the questions on the worksheet." Elizabeth replied, stuffing textbooks into her backpack before closing her locker door.
"C'mon, Mike, maybe if you cleaned that locker out every once in awhile you could find all your books." Jordan Casey teased as he moved close to Elizabeth and gently pushed her back against the lockers. The reason quickly became clear as the football team walked five abreast down the hall, on their way to make their grand exit.
"Why can't I ever remember my homework?" Michael muttered again, still digging through his locker.
Elizabeth took pity on him. "Look, I have all the books we need. Let's just head over to my house and get everything done. That way, none of us has to be bored doing it by ourselves and we'll have the rest of the weekend free."
Across the street from the High School, Jake sat in his car, waiting for Elizabeth to come out. It had been twenty minutes since the final bell rang, and he was starting to think he'd missed her. He was reaching to turn the key when he saw her in the middle of a crowd of students. She was laughing at some remark the boy next to her made. It brought a smile to his face to see her happy.
Exiting the building, Elizabeth found herself surrounded by a crowd of students; who had suddenly appeared as if from nowhere. Jordan's hand slipped from hers when a large senior shoved his way between them. Danielle glared at him as he brushed past her, and then continued their conversation.
"So, are you sure you don't need me to bring any food to your party?" she asked.
"Yeah. I think we're all set. My mom…" Elizabeth stopped, noticing an unexpected car parked at the curb.
"Yo, Liz, what is it?" Danielle asked.
"That looks like Jake's… but it can't be," she said. A moment later, the driver's door opened and Jake stepped out to lean his arm on the roof of the car. He grinned when she stopped in her tracks in shock.
"Jake!" she shouted, now running toward him.
He wrapped his arms around her in a bear hug. He decided against lifting her off her feet and swinging her around as he had only last winter in New York. 'Damn, when'd she grow up?' It wasn't a question of height, but more of how she carried herself.
She punched him in the arm. "What are you doing here? You didn't tell me you were coming home."
"I wanted to surprise you. I know it's a day early, but happy birthday, El"
Elizabeth led the way to her room carrying the sacred plate of Gail Green's homemade cookies. Her friends followed, each with their glass of milk, Jordan carrying Liz's for her. Dumping backpacks on the floor, they spread around the small room, within reach of the plate now installed on the corner of the desk. Danielle claimed the papasan in the corner by the window, and Michael the remainder of the desk. Liz and Jordan took the bed, leaning against the wall.
"Your mom's the best," Danielle said, taking a bite out of her cookie.
"Yeah, she makes the best cookies," Jordan agreed, his mouth full.
Michael looked at him, a disgusted look on his face. "Ew, man, that's gross. Don't talk with your mouth full."
"You sound like my mother," Jordan complained, stuffing the rest of the cookie in his mouth. He got up and walked to the desk. Offering both girls another cookie, he took it for himself after they declined.
Finishing her milk, Elizabeth set the empty glass on her nightstand. Scooting off the bed, she retrieved her backpack. Upending it over the bed, she snagged her math stuff, and pushed the rest against the headboard.
"I guess we better get started. Although I'm tempted to just say screw it." Absolute silence followed. Turning around, she saw her friends looking at her. "What?"
"I never thought I'd hear you say that. I mean, you're not a geek or anything but…" Danielle trailed off.
"I'm just so fed up with school. I do the homework and pass the tests. But it's boring. Maybe not doing homework would liven things up a bit."
"Yeah, or give Cutler a real reason to be on your case" Michael said, reaching over for his backpack.
"Well, if you're going to do the time…" she shrugged.
"He's a jackass" the other three said in unison, putting everyone into hysterics.
Next door, Jake found himself chuckling at the conversation coming from El's room. Obviously the kids were long-time friends. If he remembered correctly, Michael and Jordan had been in El's kindergarten class. That field trip to Topeka had been good for them, in the long run, giving them a chance to really see how true friends stick together. They had that easy familiarity of friends who knew each other well. He remembered sharing that kind of closeness with someone from his school days, but that was long ago now.
He'd also presumed he was going to have to start keeping his car locked in the garage now. As soon as he'd suggested driving all of them back to the house, the shotgun battle had been hard-fought. El had emerged victor only because of nepotism. Now that she would be getting her license, he'd have to make sure she could handle a real car.
He tossed his empty carry-on into his closet, and shut the door. Tomorrow, he'd start looking for his own place. It was past time to settle down. And Jericho really wasn't too bad, now that it was entering the twentieth century. Maybe he could sell Mom and Dad on letting El stay with him.
During dinner Gail gave him the rundown on the big news, Emily's upcoming wedding. Obviously, Emily had stayed on good terms with his parents after he left. He'd tried to be there for her after her brother's death, but she had insisted on blaming him for events he couldn't control. The final straw had been when he'd been relocated as part of his new assignment. He still missed her; but she'd been dead-set on staying in Jericho, and he hadn't had a choice. Now she had moved on, and was to be married in a couple months. Jake tried to be happy for her. She deserved some stability in her life, after everything that had happened.
Looking over at Elizabeth, Jake raised an eyebrow and nodded toward the front door. With a grin, she gathered up her dishes to take them into the kitchen. Johnston noticed this exchange and cleared his throat to get her attention before she could disappear.
"Before you and Jake head out, we need to talk about the visit I had from Mr. Cutler today," he said.
Elizabeth had caught her dad glancing at her throughout dinner but had hoped he wouldn't bring up the subject until after her birthday.
"Yeah, I know, Dad." Elizabeth moved back into the dining room. "But I'll bet he neglected to tell you that I got a 97 on my test. Or that every day he's on my case about something."
"That he did." Johnston conceded. "But that's far from the point."
"It is the point! He never tells you the whole story. He just wants to make me look like the bad guy!" she argued.
"How many times are we going to have this conversation, Elizabeth?" Johnston asked.
"I don't need this lecture again" she said, standing up. She grabbed her dishes again and started to walk out of the room.
Gail jumped in now. "Elizabeth Grace Green! You do not walk away when your father is talking to you".
Elizabeth stiffened at the command. She turned around to face Gail.
"You will sit down and keep your mouth shut."
"Okay, geez" Elizabeth said, sitting down. "But just so you know—"
"What part of sit down and keep your mouth shut do you not understand?" Gail questioned.
Elizabeth was angry but she knew better than to open her mouth again.
Elizabeth sat silently in the passenger seat of Jake's car as he drove out of town and toward nothing. Jake figured she was still upset because she hadn't tried to shift the radio station away from the President's address. Her attitudes about school concerned him. He'd been down this road and knew how easy it would be to crash and burn. If he was going to be around now, he'd have to get up to speed on the teenager sitting next to him. Sooner started, he thought.
"So, are you finally calm enough to tell me what that was about?"
"Oh, sure. David is a chauvinistic, egotistical asshole who can't stand the fact that I could teach the damn class better than he does."
"El!" he exclaimed, surprised by her spiteful words.
"What? It's true. Besides, I wouldn't fall asleep in his class if I had been allowed to test out of it. Can I help it if I'm bored?"
"First off, whether it's true or not does not give you the right to call him an asshole. So, please, watch your mouth. Second, it's Mr. Cutler, not David. And, third, why weren't you allowed to test out?"
"Because David's a bastard who convinced Mom, Dad, and the principal that there was no possible way I could test out of it. The only person who actually believed I could was Eric; but, obviously, his opinion didn't matter."
"Stop with the name calling! Even though he may very well be all those things, he's still an adult and you need to show him some respect." Jake said, still astonished by her arrogant attitude. He suddenly understood every 'talk' he'd had with his father about school. Elizabeth sounded just like he had when he was fifteen.
He admitted to himself that she did have a point. Obviously the man had not changed since Jake and Eric had been in his classes. The school myth had it that Cutler had failed miserably teaching at college level so he'd come to Jericho as a replacement for old Mrs. Albright when she died. Cutler had given up on himself and now just taught what a farming community needed.
"I thought you at least would understand my point." Elizabeth said, disappointed at Jake's reaction. Eric had actually gone down to the school to talk to Cutler when he found out she wasn't going to be allowed to test out of the class. It hadn't helped, unfortunately, but at least he'd made an effort.
Jake sighed. "I get the point, El. I agree, you should've been allowed to take the test. But you need to learn how to work with what you have, not get angry and throw a fit. That doesn't work for a child, and it certainly doesn't work for an adult. If you want, I'll go see Mr. Cutler on Monday. Maybe I can get him to let you move into the Calculus class. If he agrees, I'll help you get caught up on the material you've missed."
"Yeah, like he'd really listen to you," she muttered under her breath, just loud enough for Jake to hear. Before Jake could ask her what she'd meant, the radio signal cut out. Elizabeth started fiddling with the tuner, trying to find another station as Jake turned left onto another road. Coming out of the turn, Jake's eyes were drawn to the mushroom cloud on the western horizon. It seemed to be coming from Denver.
Elizabeth sensed his distraction and looked up to finally spot it. "What the hell…"
Returning his attention to the road, Jake suddenly cut the steering wheel hard to the left, trying to maneuver out of the way of the car now headed directly at him, in his lane. He heard the sickening pop and crunch of impact and felt the car spin out as he lost consciousness.
Back at the Green house, Johnston sat upstairs in his home office. Gail had sent him up here to take care of the bills. She didn't need to know that he had done them at the office earlier. He was simply content in being alone with his thoughts. And a lovely shot of thirty year old Scotch.
He didn't show his family just how much Jake's return home meant to him. His outward reaction to seeing Jake standing in the kitchen, helping Gail make dinner, was one of nonchalance, but inwardly he couldn't be happier. He and Jake had once been close; it was only when Jake entered high school that they started butting heads. Gail claimed it was because Jake was the spitting image of his father; their inherent stubbornness usually got the best of them. He'd never admit to it, but she was right. Even if Jake's stubborn streak was greater than his.
Eric, on the other hand, was far less bull-headed, which had made him easier to get along with. Johnston had always secretly hoped that Jake would be the last of the Green's to inherent his stubbornness. But every day Elizabeth reminded him that it had been passed to her.
When Elizabeth had been a child, Johnston had seen Grace reborn. Elizabeth had been an easy child to care for, with discipline and determination many adults lacked. She'd excelled in her lessons; and was a favorite at the Hall, where she was often found, helping everyone, after school.
Now that she was older, she had continued to follow in Grace's footsteps. But she had also integrated some of Jake's stubbornness and pride. The combination of intelligence, over-confidence and ego were proving difficult to handle this time around. Especially during the last few years. Her mouth had started to get her into trouble more regularly. Jimmy had brought her home in the middle of the night a few times after she had successfully sneaked out of the house. Often it felt like living with a time bomb—without the countdown timer. He just hoped he never got a phone call in the night from the office telling him they'd had to put her in lockup. She had been in trouble before. Her file at the sheriff's department contained records of stolen candy bars and sodas from Gracie's Market. Nothing serious, just the basic trouble that all bored adolescents consider necessary as a right of passage in their teenage years. She hadn't ventured into anything too serious. Not yet.
He knew Mr. Cutler meant well and he understood his concerns. They were the same concerns he'd once expressed about Jake. He understood Mr. Cutler's frustration with Elizabeth's arrogance, but Johnston also knew that her arrogance rose from the fact that she was bored, unchallenged even, with the class. He should've listened to Eric three months ago when he had come to him, supporting Elizabeth's desire to test out of the class. But still, the girl needed to learn that she couldn't speak to Mr. Cutler the way she had. She needed to learn to bite her tongue when it was necessary. Johnston hoped that Jake, now being home, would be able to witness Elizabeth's day to day behavior and would be able to get through to her.
"Johnston?" he heard Gail yell from downstairs. Recognizing a hint of distress in her voice, he rushed down the stairs to see Gail kneeling in front of Jimmy's son Woody, who had tears running down his cheeks.
"Gail, what is it?"
"Oh, Johnston…" she said.
Jake coughed, and opened his eyes to stare at the car's headliner. The throbbing pain in his head prompted him to sit up. Catching himself on the steering wheel as his head swam; he automatically placed a hand on his temple. There was a cut there, probably from hitting the steering wheel. He shifted his attention to the gash in his left thigh. Not serious, but definitely painful. Remembering he wasn't alone in the car, he looked over to the passenger seat. Elizabeth, unconscious, leaned against the window. A thin trail of drying blood made its way down her left cheek, starting from a small gash above her eye.
The sight of her still, seemingly lifeless, body scared Jake. His pain vanished as the adrenaline kicked in. He searched for a pulse, finally finding one. Much slower than it should have been, but there nonetheless.
"Elizabeth! Wake up, babe!"
He unhooked the lap belt and pushed his door open. Rushing around to the passenger door, he yanked on it; ready to catch her and keep her from falling. Once Jake could reach in, he unhooked her seat belt and pulled her out of the car.
"C'mon, El, baby. Wake up!" he pleaded, tears falling unheeded down his cheeks.
Laying her carefully down on the road, he rechecked her pulse. Partially reassured she was still alive; Jake examined her for other injuries. The only one he found was a caused by a large piece of glass sticking out of her leg. Since the glass was keeping her from bleeding too badly, Jake left it alone. He pressed one of his hands against the cut on her forehead, in an effort to stop the bleeding.
"El! Elizabeth! Wake up!"
Keeping his hand on her face, Jake closed his eyes and offered up a prayer to the God he'd avoided for so many years. "Dammit, God. Don't you dare do this to me!"
Elizabeth shifted under his hand. Fear turned to relief as she opened her eyes, thoroughly disoriented. Her hand met his by her eye, to feel the blood still flowing. Then she grimaced in pain, struggling to sit up. Jake helped her up, supporting her from behind. Realizing Elizabeth was looking at the glass imbedded in her thigh, Jake caught her hand before she could touch it.
"We should leave that alone for now, baby. If you shift it, you'll start it bleeding. Wait until the paramedics get here."
"What paramedics? Do you have a phone on you?"
Jake was already reaching into his jacket. "Shit! I turned it in. Where's yours?"
Elizabeth waved toward the car. "Back seat, in my coat."
Making sure she was balanced, Jake stood up to look in the car. Reaching in, he snagged the coat and pulled her phone out. Dead air came from the opened connection. Tossing it back into the car, he looked over at the other car. Nobody moved inside.
"Elizabeth, stay there. I have to go check on them," he said, as he started limping over. Reaching the passenger side, he pulled open the door to check the woman's pulse. Finding none, he looked at the driver. The blank stare confirmed neither had survived. He closed the door and limped back to Elizabeth. He shook his head at her silent question. Kneeling down at her side, he looked at her.
"We're going to have to head back to town." He took off his jacket and the sweat jacket underneath. Pulling his pocketknife out, he sawed the sweat jacket into strips. "I've got to pull that glass out and try to wrap your leg so it won't bleed too badly. Look over at the car, not at me." He reached out to grip the glass, ready to pull. "Ready?"
Elizabeth pushed his hand away. "Here, let me do it."
Yanking the glass out of her leg in one swift, excruciating motion, Elizabeth sucked down the scream in her throat. She tossed the shard aside. The sound of it smashing on the road hit her in the gut. The quiet tinkle echoed in her mind until all she could hear was the breaking glass of bus windows.
"El! Hey, stay with me, El." She opened her eyes—'when had they closed?'—to see Jake looking scared now. He had tied a couple strips around her leg, including one high up on her thigh in an attempt to slow down the blood loss.
"There was a bomb." She reached for another strip to clean the blood off her hands.
Jake looked confused at the statement. "Yeah, I think so. It was pretty far away, though. Look, we have to get going, okay? I can't leave you out here alone."
Elizabeth took the hand he offered. With Jake braced against the car, she was able to pull herself up. Jake swiped at his face, making the mess worse, while he checked her leg. It looked like the tourniquet would help for a while.
Pulling his jacket back on, he asked, "Ready?" At Elizabeth's nod, they started back down the road.
They walked along the side of the road hand in hand. Jake had tried to get Elizabeth to talk, to let him know how badly her leg was hurting, but she kept shutting him out. The only contact she'd allowed was his hand. She just kept walking, following his lead. The childish obedience was so unlike her; and it scared the hell out of Jake. But there was nothing he could do about it now. His priority was to get them medical attention. He knew his head was spinning from a concussion, and he knew if they stopped they wouldn't make it home tonight. If at all.
"Mister! Help!" Jake stopped and tried to find where the small voices were coming from. Turning to face the road they were passing, he spotted two small figures at the crest of the hill. Jake led Elizabeth at a staggered run to meet the kids. When they recognized Elizabeth behind Jake, they ran to meet her.
"Elizabeth!" the kids shouted, clinging tightly to her. "Help us, please!'.
Hearing their voices brought Elizabeth out of her trance. Looking down, she recognized two of Heather Lisinski's students. 'What are they doing way out here?' Dropping Jake's hand she knelt down to look at them. "Lucas! Julie! What's wrong?"
Julie started crying, but Lucas answered her. "I think, I think they're dying."
Elizabeth looked up to Jake, terror in her eyes. "Lucas, who? Who's hurt?"
"The bus driver and Miss Lisinski," he managed between gulps of air.
Julie spoke up now, still crying. "We were on our field trip to the caves. But the bus broke down on the way home, and Miss Lisinski had to find somebody to fix it. Then this deer ran beside us and then the bus crashed, and now everybody's hurt. Miss Lisinski told us to go down this road to find someone to help us, and we found you!" She buried her head in Elizabeth's side again.
"Show us where the bus is" Jake said. Elizabeth stood up as Julie took her hand. Lucas led the way back up the road. Jake hoped it wasn't too far away. The sun was setting and they would lose the daylight soon.
When they reached the bus, headlights still shining, the kids slowed down. Lucas' flashlight beam bounced light off the bus' grill and rested on the deer under the right front wheel.
Julie spoke up again. "It just went crazy, running all over the road."
"Alright, just don't look at it," Jake told her, trying to assess the situation. Jake led them into the bus hopping up the steps on his good leg to check on the driver. Elizabeth, moving to shield their view of the deer with her body, urged Lucas and Julie to follow him. Elizabeth painfully made her way up the stairs, stopping on the last step to see who else needed help. Heather was sprawled on the first seat, her left leg propped up. She was looking over at Jake and the driver.
"Heather! Are you hurt?" Even with the crappy interior lights, Heather was looking very pale.
"Is he alive?" The question was directed at Jake.
"Yeah," Jake answered quietly as he turned to look at Elizabeth's friend. "You okay?"
"Yeah. But I…I think my leg is broken." Heather's voice was laced with pain.
"Can you feel your toes?" Jake glanced back at Elizabeth as he took his jacket off again.
"Yeah. Don't worry about me. Worry about them."
It was only then that Jake remembered the bus was carrying students, He knew from what Julie had said that there were other kids on the bus, but he'd forgotten while checking on the driver and the woman.
"Anybody hurt? Anybody?" Jake called out.
A boy in the back of the bus raised his hand. "Stacy's sick. She can't breathe."
Using the seatbacks to support himself, Jake moved to Stacy's seat. Elizabeth followed at Heather's urging.
"What's wrong?" Jake asked as he got close. Looking down at the little girl, he saw her clutching at her throat and wheezing. "What happened?"
"When the bus stopped she was like this." Leaning against the back of Stacy's seat, the boy blanked his face, letting his eyes bug out a little, holding his breath.
Jake looked back down at Stacy. She was getting more and more scared, making it even harder for her to breathe. Jake tried to reassure her.
"It's okay, Stacy, Let me see. Just let me see it." Continuing to talk to her, he gently pulled her hands away from her throat, to see the massive bruise.
Jake called to the teacher, "Do you have an ice pack? We gotta stop the swelling now." He needed to work fast before the swelling cut off the air supply to her lungs.
She thought for a moment, then told Lucas, "The first aid kit is under the seat. " She indicated the seat behind the driver. He grabbed it and brought it to Elizabeth.
Jake kept talking calmly to Stacy. "It's alright, just breathe. Breathe normally, alright? It's okay. You're fine."
Elizabeth opened the kit and grabbed out the chemical ice pack for Jake. Snapping it, Jake gave it a second to activate, then laid against Stacy's neck.
Stacy tried to talk. "Please…it..."
"Calm down." Stacy's eyes drifted closed and she stopped breathing. "Hey, Stacy. No, no, no…" Jake leaned over trying to hear her breathe. Nothing. Jake tried to think what to do next. Not liking it, he decided he'd have to open a new airway below the bruise.
Catching Elizabeth's eye, he called out.
"Alright. Look, I need everyone's help right now. Who has a pen? Does anyone?" He looked back to Elizabeth, to see she'd guessed what he needed to do. "Does anyone have a pen? I need a pen!"
"We have pencils" Lucas says.
"No. I need a tube. Something hollow," Jake told the boy.
"What about a straw?" Elizabeth asked. "The kids usually bring juice boxes with their lunch. Would a straw work?"
"Yeah. That'll work…:" he trailed off. The straw Julie had brought him was too narrow. "El, that's too small. We need something bigger."
"Um…" She thought quickly. "What about several? You know, grouped together?"
Jake looked relieved. "Okay, does anyone else have a juice box? Give your straws to Julie. El, use the band-aids to tape them together to make a bigger tube."
Leaving Elizabeth to manage that, Jake looked in the kit for some alcohol. He needed to sterilize his knife and Stacy's throat. When the girls had the tube ready, Elizabeth told Julie to go back to her seat.
Jake looked at her seriously. "I'm going to need your help, hon. Reach over and hold her down, in case she wakes up. She can't move while I'm trying to open her windpipe."
Elizabeth's eyes widened and she started to look scared again. Somehow, she won the battle inside, and nodded to him.
"Okay, kids, close your eyes. Nobody look. El, you ready?"
With a deep breath, Jake carefully felt for the ridge of Stacy's trachea, and pushed the knife's blade in. When he felt it cut through, he pulled the blade down to lengthen the slit. As soon as he had enough room, he took the tube from Elizabeth and pushed it in. He breathed slowly into the tube, hoping the air was going into Stacy's lungs. Counting to five, he blew again. And again. After the third round, Stacy's lungs took over. Her wheezing breath was wonderful to hear.
Elizabeth's tears rolled unnoticed down her face. She stroked Stacy's hair as she opened her eyes. Letting Jake fall back into the opposite seat, she came around to hold Stacy's hand and keep her calm.
A few minutes later, after he'd caught his breath, and the kids had settled down again, Jake returned to the front of the bus with Stacy in his arms. He laid her down in the seat behind her teacher.
"How is she?'
"We need to get her back."
With Elizabeth's help, he moved the bus driver onto one of the back benches. She urged the kids to sit closer to the front as he settled behind the wheel with a groan of pain. With a deep breath and crossed fingers, Jake turned the key in the ignition. Fortunately the bus turned over and Jake backed away from the deer. Shifting back into drive, he carefully maneuvered the bus up onto the road and continued to town.
Jake fought to stay conscious. He knew it was because of the concussion and the adrenaline finally leaving his system. He looked in the mirror at Elizabeth, hoping she could keep him focused enough to get them safely to town. Instead, he saw she'd withdrawn again. Her eyes looked inward, and she didn't move. She never noticed when one of the boys jostled her. Really frightened for his daughter now, Jake tried to coax more speed out of the bus.
Five miles from town he started to sweat. Looking over to the teacher, he asked very softly, "Does this bus have a gas can?"
She shrugged an "I don't think so."
"The bus…if it stops…"
She understood what he didn't say. Turning to the kids behind her, she told them how to get help if the bus stopped again. Elizabeth never even reacted.
Jake stood in El's doorway, watching her sleep. He knew he needed some as well, but the day's events still had his nerves buzzing.
"Son, you better pray your mother doesn't find you out of bed."
Johnston stood next to Jake. Jake just managed to control his reflexes and glanced at his father. Johnston hadn't flinched when Jake startled, so he must have guessed how tightly strung he was. But it had been a stupid move to approach him silently.
"What are you still doing up, Dad? You've had a long day too," Jake tried to shift the conversation away from what he suspected.
"I told your mother I'd take first shift checking up on you. 'Course, I'd thought all I'd have to do was look for you in your bed." Johnston wasn't taking the bait.
"I can't help it. I'm worried about her. It took her so long to wake up after the accident and then she went away while we were walking. I know she came back when we found the kids, but, Dad, I'm scared. She's acting shell-shocked."
Johnston started to interrupt, but Jake pressed on. "Yeah, I've seen soldiers from the front lines, Dad. Please don't ask, I can't tell you why."
"She's going to be okay, Jake. That's how she deals with things."
"April should have checked her better for shock."
"Jake, son. Trust me. She's okay. Besides, she's been through worse."
"Worse? What are you talking about?"
Johnston put a hand on Jake's shoulder before stepping toward the staircase. "I really think she needs to be the one to tell you. But trust me; everything will be okay."