S4: #13 – Chapter 11- Epilogue.

 

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Photo Prompt: google images

 

Chapter 11

Edward felt as if he were in the eye of a mighty hurricane. The proverbial calm between two storm fronts. On one side he had his duty to his country; and on the other, the long-term commitment he was about to make. He paced the length of his room, then paused in front of the mirror to inspect his uniform, yet again. Behind him, he heard the door open; followed by the squeak of Charlie’s chair. He reminded himself that he needed to oil the wheels before he left for his honeymoon.

‘Hey, Mister Marine, you’re lookin’ right sharp.’ Charlie smiled up at him.

‘At least the airlines didn’t lose this piece of luggage.’ Edward chuckled. ‘And, hey, what happened to our agreement? You can call me Ed if you want.’

‘You’re dressed up like a soldier today. You told me that when you’re dressed up like this to treat you like a soldier…with respect.’ Charlie pulled himself up straight and whipped off a solid salute.

‘Yeah, I did, didn’t I.’ Edward winked. ‘Between us, this is just a monkey suit, Charlie.’

‘I’m Mister Hastings to you, MasterSergeant.’ Charlie grinned from ear to ear as he tried to sound big and important.

‘Almost… not quite, but almost.’ Edward wiggled a finger before reminding him of the reality. ‘We have to wait for the Judge to make his decision on that.’

‘It’s not fair.’ Charlie stuck out his lower lip in a serious pout. ‘Momma Kie gets to be Missus Hastings today. It’s not fair I have to wait.’

‘Tell you what, between us and Momma Kie, you’re already a Hastings.’ Edward fist bumped his foster-son. ‘I’m sure the judge will move as quickly as he can, Charlie, so you won’t have to wait long.’

Charlie shrugged. ‘As long as you and Momma Kie love me, it don’t matter.’

‘Doesn’t matter.’ He corrected. ‘You ready to roll?’

‘Oh, I forgot. Ms. Sparrowhawk said to tell you to get your wheels up, Sir.’

Edward laughed heartily. ‘Then we’d best be getting down to the church. Remember this, Charlie, the last thing that you want to do in this life is to be late for your own wedding.’ Edward grabbed the chair handles, spun him around in a wheelie and headed off down the hall at a fast step. ‘If you are, your bride will have you keel-hauled and have what’s left minced for fish food. You don’t want to be fish food, do you, Son?’

‘Nope, not me, Sir.’ Charlie chortled as they busted through the door and down the ramp to the truck.

At the same time, Keisha was anxiously pacing between the two windows of the Bride’s Room at the church. She kept looking up to the clock and mumbling to herself about time moving so slow. And though she could mumble, she couldn’t find a voice loud enough or strong enough to speak to anyone.

‘You’re doing just fine, Kie.’ Sparrowhawk encouraged her. ‘I just called the Ranch and told Charlie it was time to go wheel’s up. They’ll be here real soon, Keisha, real soon.’

Keisha’s eyes betrayed her anxiety all too well as her hands flew into rapid sign language. ‘What if I can’t speak? What if I can’t say ‘I Do’? What if…?’

Sparrowhawk chuckled. ‘Look at you. You’re worried about something that Edward won’t even notice. He won’t care what language you speak in, Kie. He loves you for everything that you are… signs included.’

‘But…?’ She stuttered.

Sparrowhawk enfolded her hands into her own. ‘Keisha, Edward loves you more than the world itself. He’ll be her any minute, and he won’t care about how you say your vows.’

Keisha took a deep, shaky breath, trying her best to believe her friend. Tears burned at the corners of her eyes.

‘Oh, no, no tears, Kie. It will make you look like a raccoon. I’m pretty sure Ed wants to marry a beautiful woman…not a raccoon.’ Sparrowhawk got her to laughing. ‘Now, look out the window. Isn’t that Ed’s pickup?’

Keisha did look. She watched as he helped Charlie from the seat to his chair with perfect ease. She knew in her heart that he was going to make a wonderful husband and an excellent father. They just had to get the formalities taken care of with the courts. They just had to find a way to convince the birth father that had never been a part of Charlie’s life to relinquish his paternal rights to the boy. It all sounded so simple, but it wasn’t. Keisha closed her eyes for a moment in prayer.

‘God, please, if it’s your will, make Charlie our son. We’ll do all we can to give him the best home he could hope for. Amen.’ Keisha opened her eyes as she heard a light tap on the door behind them.

‘It’s time,’ Alexander called through the barely opened door. ‘Are you ladies ready?’

‘Yes, we are. Come on in, Alex.’ Sparrowhawk kissed Keisha’s cheek. ‘You’re okay. Everything is going to be okay. I’ll just go out and find my seat. See you in a few moments.’

Alexander stepped into the room and whistled. ‘You are so beautiful, Kie. Edward is one very lucky Marine.’

‘I’m the lucky one, Alex.’ Keisha signed before taking his elbow.

Alexander placed his hand over hers on his arm. ‘So, there’s no chance you want to slip out the back door and make a quick getaway?’

Keisha gave a hearty laugh at the suggestion, bringing a bright pink to her cheeks that was far more alluring than any makeup could ever be. ‘Not – a – ch-cha-chance.’ She stuttered as they stepped into the hall.

As she entered the sanctuary, Keisha’s eyes traveled up to the stained glass window she’d designed and built for the church to replace the one that had been shattered. The morning sunlight twinkled through the red and white roses that encircled a clear glass sky. Within the sky, seemingly suspended in mid-air was a pair of eagles creating a circle with their wings. Below, in a small panel encircled by roses was the verse that had been her inspiration…

But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

They will run and not grow weary,

they will walk and not be faint.’

Isaiah 40:31

She took a deep breath, feeling renewed as the triumphal entry began to echo a herald to her arrival.

Edward turned beside Charlie, and saw his bride haloed in the sunlight streaming through the open door behind her. His angel was coming home… to him. Life didn’t get better than this, he thought as he gulped and snapped to attention. Beside him, Charlie was grinning from ear to ear, just waiting to be part of a family again.

Everyone rose, partially hiding Keisha from Edward’s eyes for a moment.

Mr. Williams turned in his seat and watched as Keisha passed his pew. She was beautiful today, he had to admit that. He turned and his eyes fell on the window. Something was stirring within his heart that he couldn’t quite understand. As he sat down to watch the ceremony, his eyes fell on the small boy in the wheelchair. His son. How had he gone through this life without ever having spent a single day with his own flesh and blood? Yet, the boy looked so happy today. Jack remembered the boy’s mother. She had been a beauty that night so many years ago. He’d been a total ass. He had never forgiven himself for what he had done that night. He’d changed both their lives forever. He’d gone away to college never knowing that she was even pregnant, let alone that she’d given birth to his son.

‘Do you, Mister Edward Long Hastings, take Keisha Leann Eglan-Wormwood to be…’

Jack couldn’t focus on the ceremony at all. His thoughts were wrapped up in the boy. He’d only just learned that he even had a son. How could he be a father? How could he, an unmarried and confirmed bachelor raise a little boy… a crippled little boy, at that? He didn’t know where to turn. He didn’t know what to do. Would it be right to pull the boy away from a couple who genuinely seemed to love him, and who wanted him as part of their lives enough to go through the adoption process? Jack sighed, and bowed his head.

‘God, if you’re even still there, hear me, please. I’ve done my best to try to right all the wrongs of my youth, at least, I hope I have. But, this one… this one sin… I never knew.’ He paused in his prayer. ‘God, help me to do what’s right for my son, even if it means giving him to these people. I’ve watched them. I know them. They would be good parents. The boy would want for nothing. Oh, God, I can never do enough to earn your forgiveness for my sins. I simply can’t. I can only hope that by your grace I can be forgiven, and that I can make a better life for… for the son I never knew I had.’

Jack looked up to see Charlie handing up the rings to Edward. The boy’s joy couldn’t be hidden. ‘Lord, I never meant to go left-of-center. I never meant to hit his Mom’s car head-on. I never meant to kill her, Lord. I never meant to cripple him for life. He shouldn’t have to pay so dearly for my mistakes. I know that you have the power to forgive me for that. I trust that you can do that. I will never forget it, though. It’s what I do now… how you’ve changed my heart these past few months. Lord, this is a new day …and by all that I am I will make it a good one, for Charlie. Amen.’

Reverend John raised his hands over Edward and Keisha’s heads to deliver his final blessing on their union. ‘Father, we ask you to bless this couple with a long and happy life. May they continue to grow in their love for you.’ He looked down to Charlie. ‘And may their family always live in the light of your blessing. Make them a strong force for your service and a living example of your love.’

Epilogue:

It took a record-breaking two months to formalize Charlie’s adoption. The Judge had said that the birth-father had called him at home the day of their wedding and refused to hang up until he had the Judge’s word that the adoption would go through. The next morning, all the paperwork had been drawn up, signed, witnessed, and sealed. The Judge had then pushed the paperwork through the system like a hurricane through the islands where the happy family had gone on their honeymoon. By the time they’d returned to the states, the adoption was a done deal.

Edward and Keisha each held one of Charlie’s hands as they waited for the Judge to join them. He did.

‘So, young man, I understand that you’d like to make your name Hastings?’ The Judge asked Charlie.

‘Yes, Sir, I would like that more than anything in the world.’ Charlie admitted.

‘Then, it’s done, Mr. Hastings.’ The Judge smiled.

‘Really?’

‘Really.’ The Judge winked at Charlie who instantly squealed with delight. ‘Mr. and Mrs. Hastings, all the paperwork is in order and completed. You are now the parents of Mr. Charlie Hastings. Good luck for your future together.’

And, with that, it was over.

A few moments later, Edward had Charlie in his arms as they walked out of the courthouse. As they came to the end of the ramp, they met up with Mr. Williams.

‘Hey, Mister Williams, guess what?’ Charlie piped up.

‘What?’ He smiled at the boy.

‘I gotta new family today!’ Charlie squeezed Edward’s neck.

‘That’s wonderful news.’ Mr. Williams smiled, feeling a small catch in the back of his throat.

‘While I have you here…’ Edward began to speak. ‘I’d like to hire you to build us a house. Two bedrooms, at least.’

‘Better make it three.’ Keisha smiled with a hand on her stomach.

Edward grinned even more. ‘Better make it a four bedroom mansion, then, Jack.’

Mr. Williams couldn’t help but smile. Yes, he’d made the right decision. ‘Call my office and set up an appointment to go over what you want. I’d be honored to build your home.’

As Edward, Keisha, and Charlie left the courthouse to enter into their new life as a family, Mr. Williams spoke another prayer.

‘Father, thank you. You’ve restored the light of hope into my life and my future. Amen, and again, amen.’

-THE END-

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S4: #12 – Chapter Ten

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Photo prompt: Pixabay.com

Chapter 10

It had been three weeks since the tragic events at the Community Church. Since then, the church had remained boarded up and unused. Now, though, it was time for the congregation to focus on the future. And, that, left them at a bit of a crossroads… restore or rebuild. In the end, it was decided that restoring would be the easiest and most cost-effective. To that end, the Administrative Council had called a meeting in the school cafeteria to discuss the construction bids they had received. The cafeteria was a packed house of both the congregation, the construction bidders, and the community. In fact, it seemed that the whole town of Pine Ridge had turned out for the discussion.

Doctor’s Alexander Bearfighter and Sparrowhawk attended to represent Hope Ranch. Many of their employees and clients attended as well; including Kiesha and Edward. Edward had asked and been granted an extended leave of absence to care for Kiesha as she recovered from her injuries. Now, they were seldom seen apart from one another, and rumors of a romance lingered in the air.

Alexander was waiting for just the right moment to make his offer to the Administrative Council.

Finally, Reverend Walfor looked over to them and smiled. ‘Dr. Bearfighter, it is my understanding that you wish to address the meeting?’

‘Yes, Sir, I do.’ Alexander unfolded his arms and strode forward. ‘Hope Ranch would like to play a significant role in restoring the Church. We’d like to offer whatever labor assistance that we can for the work ahead at no charge to the Church.’

Heads around the table and the room as a whole nodded their appreciation fof the gesture. Many in the room knew that they damages were the result of a police chase involving a former client of the Ranch, Jack Lyons. To them, the gesture seemed more than fitting.

‘That offer would cut your building expenses almost in half, Reverend.’ James Williams, owner of Sunlight Construction Company, noted from the back of the room. James wanted this bid, and he would go to any length to get it for his company. It wasn’t a need for the monetary profits that drove him as his company was well-established and profitable enough to donate their services entirely if he wanted to. No, it was much more personal than that. It stemmed from something long buried in his past that he felt a need to atone for.

‘Thank you, Mr. Williams, for bringing that to our attention.’ Rev. Walford nodded.

‘If you’ll allow me a moment, Sir… With that offer from Hope Ranch on the table, Sunlight will be able to drop our bid substantially…’ James furiously tapped his phone screen as he strode through the crowd to the front table. ‘How does this new figure strike your fancy?’

Rev. Walford took the phone, looking at the figures on the screen before passing it around the table to the Council members. When the phone returned to him, and with Council’s approval, he read the figures off for all to hear.

The announcement was met with gasps of astonishment at how low the bid was. The representatives of the other construction companies began to grumble amongst themselves. There was no viable way that any of them could meet, or top the Sunlight Construction bid.

‘Does anyone have a counter-offer?’ Adminstrative Council President Helen Jenkins asked, scanning the faces of the other representatives. ‘No, well, very well, then.’

‘Madam President, excuse the interruption, but I have a question for Mr. Williams.’ Dr. Bearfighter asked, turning towards the owner. ‘Before we proceed, Mr. Williams, I must ask is you are willing to work with our clients and staff? You are aware that many have challenges of varying degrees. They are at our Ranch in order to rebuild and improve their lives as well as that of their families. They are not perfect people. Are you ready to accept that?’

‘I am fully aware of what your Ranch does, Doctor. I support that work.’ James smiled with what he hoped was genuine sincerity. Inside, hiring the Ranch clients would fall right into his plans. ‘You wouldn’t send me a worker who was not capable of the tasks assigned to them, would you, Doctor Bearfighter?’

‘No, of course not.’ Alexander met his veiled challenge head-on.

‘Good.’ James focused back to the Council members. ‘If you like this number, I’ll have my secretary draw up a new bid and have it into your hands before morning service.’

The Council members exchanged looks before agreeing.

‘If there are no counter-bids… and if there are no objections, I move that we take a vote to accept the revised bid from Sunlight Construction Company.’ President Jenkins suggested.

‘I’ll be the first to cast my vote in favor.’ Rev. Walford spoke up.

‘All in favor of accepting the bid from Sunlight Construction signify by saying: Aye.’ Pres. Jenkins paused for the shower of affirmatives. ‘Any opposed?’ She paused again to hear only silence. ‘Then, by a common and unanimous vote, the bid for reconstruction is hereby awarded to Sunlight Construction Company. Thank you, Mr. Williams for your bid.’

‘Thank you all.’ James Williams nodded to both the table and to Alexander. His smile was as genuine as it ever got. ‘Thank you, very much.’

‘I’ll see your revised offer in my hand in the morning, Mr. Williams. Until then, do I have a move and a second to adjourn?’ Ms. Jenkins concluded the business meeting.

A chorus of agreement echoed off the walls. There was suddenly a restoration of hope within the community. People rose and beganto mingle around the refreshment tables.

After accepting a glass of punch and a napkin full of cookies from one of the ladies, James made his way over to Alexander and his wife. ‘I do hope you were serious about your offer, Doctor. Reconstruction is more of a challenge than building from scratch, especially on a historic building such as this one. I’m still surprised that the county hasn’t condemned it.’ James tugged at his belt, resetting his jeans on his hips. ‘All this old stone… It’s probably what saved the building from total collapse to tell you the truth.’

‘The church was built to last, for sure. And, I don’t make offers I cannot stand behind, Mr. Williams. I have twenty men and women ready to begin work as soon as you are ready for us.’ Alexander responded to his challenge.

‘I need to secure a building permit before we can begin work on the structural damages. Before I lay a single hand on any of it, though, I’m going to do my own inspection.’ James explained. ‘We might be able to start work by mid-week, hopefully.’

‘Good. You let me know when you want us on site, and we’ll be there.’ Alexander nodded.

‘Alex?’ Edward interrupted.

‘Yes, Ed? What do you need?’ Alexander turned.

‘I’m taking Keisha on back to the Ranch,now.’ He explained. ‘She said that she wants to get started on that special project you discussed with her.’

‘Thanks, Ed. Go ahead and give her a lift back, but tell her to hold off on the project for the moment. I’ll be by to explain when I get back.’ Alexander responded.

‘Will do.’ Edward shrugged, eyeing James with suspicion. ‘Good afternoon, Mr. Williams.’

Edward returned to Keisha, explaining what Alexander had said. ‘… Besides, I need to go for a run, then hit some weights… Gotta get my body back on track, too.’

Keisha frowned as he helped her out of her seat. ‘But, I thought…’ She began as he shifted from one foot to the other.

‘I have stayed as long as I can, Kie, you know that. I only have so much leave time left. I’ve gotten my orders to report back.’ He ran a hand through his hair. Why did she still think that he’d be staying? He’d been upfront with her from the beginning. He’d only come back to Pine Ridge to heal. He was as healed as he ever could be. It was time to get back to work.

Keisha accepted elbow as they walked out of the school and towards the car. ‘I still need you, Ed.’ She half-whispered.

‘You only think that you do, Kie. You’re good to go, now. Franklin is behind bars, and will be for a very long time. You’re safe, now.’ He patted the hand that was squeezing his arm. ‘I ship out to rejoin my team in three weeks from today. I leave Pine Ridge in two. You need to understand that, Kie.’

‘I do. I – I don’t want you to go, Ed.’ Keisha’s tone bordered between sincerity and panic.

‘Aw, hell.’ He thought. This wasn’t going to be an easy parting. She’d become attached to him. Outwardly, he opened the car door for her. He’d found the needed closure for his last mission but what about his present situation? How could he close this relationship without breaking her heart, again. It was something he’d have to figure out, and soon. By the time he’d circled the car and slid into the driver’s seat, he saw the telltale glistening at the corners of her eyes. ‘Aw, hell, now she was crying.’

He sighed.

‘Aw, Kie, don’t cry. We’ll figure something out.’ He spoke softly as he reached out to touch her cheek. ‘We’ve still got two weeks.’

‘Take me home, Ed.’ She spoke evenly as she turned her head to look out the side window. The reality that she was about to be abandoned by him again set heavily on her heart. At least this time, she knew it enough in advance to prepare herself for the pain.

‘I’m so sorry, Kie.’ He began as he put the car into gear and rolled out of the parking lot. ‘I never meant for us to get this close. If it hadn’t been for the explosion…’

Kiesha fixed her gaze out of the window as her mind replayed the events of the last two months. So much had happened; and yet, though he’d been there at her side, he’d never said he’d stay there forever. In fact, he’d repeatedly spoke of returning to duty as his goal. It was she who had thought that they had something more, well, permanent. With a deep sigh, she chastised herself. ‘I’m a fool… a fool in love, but still a fool.’

Edward drove on in silence. In his mind, he replayed their times together since he’d come home. He tried to recall what he’d said that would lead her to believe he give up his life for her. Then, he thought about Alexander’s words that silence often spoke louder than words, as did actions. ‘God,’ He prayed silently. ‘I really need your help here, if ya can spare a minute or two. I think I might love her enough to leave the Service for her.’

As soon as he stopped at the Ranch, Keisha sprung from the car as fast as she could move. He groaned as he got out and called after her even as he noticed she was almost running to get away from him.

‘Aw, Kiesha!’ He moaned as he pounded the roof of the car in frustration. ‘Two weeks,’ He reminded himself as he leaned his forehead on the hot metal. ‘I’ve got two weeks to make things right between us. God, if you’re still up there, I’m not joking when I say I need your help, here.’

Later that evening, Edward noticed that Keisha hadn’t come down from her room all afternoon and evening. As he sat with the others eating dinner, he felt her absence deeply.

‘Mister Marine.’ Charles asked for his attention.

‘Yep.’ Edward looked across the table to the little boy.

‘I’d like to ride up to the lookout. Would you ride with me?’ Charles asked with the grin that never seemed to leave his face.

Edward looked to Alexander for his approval before answering. ‘Sure. I suppose I could do that.’

‘Great!’ Charles grinned as he unlocked his brakes. ‘Last one to the barn has to saddle up!’

Charles tore out of the kitchen while everyone laughed. Edward rose slowly, shaking his head and picking up his plate as he did so.

‘Just leave them, Ed. I got it tonight.’ Sparrowhawk chuckled. ‘Speedy, there, will want to get there in time to see the Eagles before they go to roost for the night.’

Minutes later, Edward was placidly riding alongside Charles. As he looked out over the valley, he couldn’t help but to smile at the memories of his wild youth in this valley. It was amazing that he’d survived his own stupidity back then.

As they stopped at the lookout, Charles sat tall in his saddle looking like he was in paradise. ‘I love it here, ya’ know.’ He spoke after several moments.

‘It is a nice place.’ Edward responded as his eyes scanned the area. He felt something was off, though he couldn’t quite put a bead on it. It was just instinct, he told himself. But, his instinct was nearly never wrong.

‘I saw Miss Keisha crying when you came home.’ Charles noted. ‘Was she upset because you’re going back to be a Marine?’

Edward took a sharp breath. The kid could be a Marine with the way he was able to read the world around him. ‘Yes, she was.’

‘I’m sorry for her. She loves you, ya’ know. She told me so.’ Charles shared with his friend. ‘She’s gonna cry a lot when you leave.’

Edward hung his head. How did this little boy always seem to hit the nail on the head like he did. It was uncanny, and unnerving. He hadn’t told anyone how he felt about Keisha, so the boy must have read it through his actions. And, if the boy could deduce it… everyone knew. With an internal moan, Edward focused his thoughts outward.

‘There they are!’ Charles broke the uncomfortable silence. ‘See how they move, always in sync with each other. Kinda like Alex and Sparrowhawk, dontcha think?’

‘I can see where you could say that.’ Edward agreed, happy to be off the subject of Keisha and himself.

‘Sometimes they fly really close together, and sometimes really far apart. But, they’re always together. Did you know that Eagles stay together for their whole lives?’

‘Yes, I did know that. They also soar on heated air eddies.’ Edward added. ‘That way, they can rest their wings without landing. It’s their way of conserving their energies for what’s important.’

‘Uh-huh.’ Charles nodded. ‘Sometimes one eagle will fly away all day hunting while the other stays at their nest.’

Edward smiled. He knew where Charles was leading. ‘It’s not as easy with humans, Charles. Long distance relationships are difficult to maintain under the best of circumstances.’

‘Alexander says that anything w

worth having is worth working for.’ Charles noted just as the air was split with a cry that sounded much like that of an eagle, but not.

Edward’s head jerked towards the source of the sound. He’d heard a real scream, or so he thought.

‘It came from down there.’ Charles pointed down to the bottom of the valley where the river ran. ‘It came from the river. Maybe someone fell in.’

‘I’ll ride down and check it out. You stay on the trail.’ Edward nudged his horse. Halfway down the trail that led to the river’s edge, he heard splashing. Dismounting so he could clear the ground quicker, Edward set off into the underbrush. Off the path, the ground was very steep and a challenge to get down.

He pushed on, keeping the river in sight. Then, he saw her… her head was slipping under the water.

His mind threw him back to his last mission, again. The river in his flashback was a raging torrent filled with debris large enough to take out anything in its path. He carried the patient piggy-back style as they followed the road uphill. All around, the rain beat against him as the wind threatened to rip her from his back. He felt the hot, terrified breaths against his neck as he picked his way around abandoned vehicles and debris.

‘Uphill! Keep moving!’ He called out to the rest of his team and medical personnel from the hospital.

Edward kept moving, refusing to stop even as the surge began to rise around his legs to his waist. He felt the powerful tugging of the water trying to dislodge his charge. Still, he kept moving, not giving up the hope of reaching safety. He could see dry ground, just a few hundred feet above them. If he could just fight the water long enough. If he could…

In reality, it was the overgrowth of the forest floor tugging and snagging against his shoes and jeans that hampered his progress in reaching the river. Ahead of him, he saw Keisha rise up out of the water, spitting and sputtering. Then, just as quickly, her head went under again just as he reached the river’s edge. He jumped in, swimming out in the direction he’d seen her go down in.

He winced, as his chest ached at the coldness of the water. It was cold enough to ensure hypothermia, he thought. Under water, now, he opened his eyes to peer through the murkiness. A hand suddenly flashed by his face within inches. Kicking towards it, he found her and wrapped his arms around her middle. Instantly, he heard the telltale sound of a strangulated scream.

Keisha felt arms encircle her waist and pull her against a rock hard, male, body. She instinctively screamed. Water filled her mouth; her throat; and burned in her lungs. She was drowning. She had to get to air. She fought against the hold on her waist even as she felt him push upwards until her head broke the surface. She gasped for air and fought all the harder against his hold.

‘Stop fighting. Be Still.’ Edward ordered as he rolled her onto her back and stroked towards the shore. ‘I’ve got you, Kie, stop fighting me.’

Keisha coughed and sputtered water out of her lungs. She felt him pull her up and out of the water. Then, he was pounding her back. She coughed harder, spitting up even more water.

‘Take it easy. Just breathe… slowly breaths.’ He insisted, now rubbing her back.

‘Leave – me – alone.’ Keisha gasped, pulling away from him. Her hand found a stick, and she brandished it defensively.

‘Whoa, Kie.’ Edward held up his hands. ‘I am not going to hurt you.’

‘You – you nearly got me drowned!’ She coughed hard. ‘How – how dare you!’

‘I- you were- I’m sorry, Kie.’ He sat back, covering his face with his hands to hide his tears. In his efforts to save her, he’d nearly gotten her killed. His shoulders began to shake and not from the cold. ‘I – I heard – I thought you were screaming. I – I thought you were drowning. You grabbed me. You scared me.’

‘You weren’t – …?’ He frowned at her.

‘No, I wasn’t drowning.’ She growled, throwing the stick at him. ‘It’s hot. I thought a dip would be -…’

Edward stared at her as she swiped her wet hair off her face. There was no way he could leave, not without making things right between them. ‘Are you sure that you’re okay, Kie?’

She nodded, looking up at him without hiding her displeasure. ‘Yes.’ She spoke and signed together.

‘You’re an angel, Kie, a true angel.’ He finally uttered. ‘May God help me, but I love you, Keisha. I truly and honestly love you. I can’t see myself leaving here without knowing that you’ll be here for me when I come home, every time I come home.’

Keisha blinked at him. ‘So you’ve said before, Edward.’ She snorted. ‘I don’t know that I can stand to see you leave unless I know for certain that you’re coming home.’

‘I can’t promise that, Kie. What I do is deadly dangerous. I could easily be killed on a mission, any mission.’ He was honest to the point of hurting her, but she needed to realize that reality. ‘There could very well come a day when I come home from a mission in a box. That’s the reality of life in the Service, Kie. I can’t change that.’

Keisha took a long, deep breath. As she let it out, she met and held his eyes. ‘Reality… it scares me, Ed. But what scares me more is being without you.’

‘I was just up at the lookout with Charles… he was talking about the eagles.’ Edward paused. ‘He said something that was wise beyond his years, likening the life of the eagles to our own. They often travel hundreds of miles away from each other, but they always return to their mate and their nest. And, that they mate for life.’

‘Charles listens to Alex, and remembers everything. He’s a smart little boy. Any family that adopts him is going to be so very blessed.’ Keisha remarked as she retrieved her towel and began drying herself.

‘I love you, Keisha Wormwood. I love you, and I don’t want you to be out of my life again, Keisha.’ He reached forward for her hand. ‘I want to spend the rest of my life with you, Keisha. I think we could make that happen, if you’re willing, that is?’

Keisha paused, letting the towel fall to the ground. She couldn’t believe she’d just heard him say what he had said. He was admitting that he loved her. She shook her head. If he actually meant it, then it was an answer to all her prayers. But, if he was leaving…?

‘HEY!’ Charles called down to them from the trail where he held Edward’s horse for him.

They both looked up at the little boy with smiles.

‘ARE YOU OKAY?’

‘YEAH! WE’RE GOOD!’ Edward called back.

‘GREAT! ALEX IS ON HIS WAY WITH THE ATV! HE SAID TO SIT TIGHT.’ Charles yelled down the slope.

‘We’ve been busted – again.’ Edward chuckled as he spoke to Keisha.

‘We’re total sinners…’ Keisha giggled back.

‘Yeah, we are. Thank God in heaven that we’ve both been sanctified, though.’ Edward pulled her into his arms and kissed her.

The sound of the ATV breaking over the brush interrupted them as Alexander pulled up. ‘I can see you’re good.’ Alexander noted as he dismounted the vehicle with a chuckle.

Edward looked over to Alexander and mentally wondered if he’d ever be totally ‘good’ again. The flashback had sent him to into action to save Keisha, even though it had been a false alarm. Internally, and in some way, he felt like he’d redeemed himself. Momentarily, the patient he had carried flashed through his mind. He’d pulled her from the churning waters, too. And, despite of everything he could do, she’d died all the same. He’d done all that he could have done, and still she had died. He didn’t understand the plans of the Almighty, but as he looked back to Keisha and saw the love in her eyes, it didn’t matter that he understood. It was what it was, and life went on. Why hadn’t he been able to see that before? He shook his head and returned to his conversation.

‘Keisha, I have five years of service left to qualify for full retirement. In that time, I’ll have to be away for weeks, maybe months at a time. We’ll have to work at our relationship, but I think we can do it.’ He went on to say, sensing her concern before she could say it. ‘… I will fly home every chance I get.’

Keisha blinked again, then a smile slowly began to blossom. ‘I – cough- I’d like that, Ed.’

‘Is that a ‘yes’ that you’ll marry me?’ Edward cocked his head, waiting for her answer.

‘Yes.’ Keisha suddenly giggled.

Edward closed his eyes and sent up a prayer of thanksgiving.

S4 reaches its conclusion…

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Photo prompt: Pixabay.com

 

As I’m sitting here, I have the final chapters written in my Traveler’s Notebook on the table beside me. Not sure I really like the speed with which the story has ended itself, but it is what it is. There is a conclusion to the main plot, and a hint at the next book in the series… at least, I think so.

I hope to post the last serials within the next few days, as typing and internet time permits.  Thank you to those who’ve stuck it out and read and commented along the way. It is deeply appreciated.

S4: #11 – Chapter Nine

Masacre Mozote

Photo Ref: Google images. San Cristobal 2017

 

Chapter Nine

‘Good morning, Ed. It’s really good to see you this morning.’ Pastor John smiled as he held out a hand.

‘Keisha needed me to help her.’ Edward wanted the minister to know that his attendance wasn’t his own idea.

Pastor John nodded. ‘It’s good to see you anyway. You’re welcome any time, Ed.’

Edward kept his hands glued to the wheel chair handles as he pushed Keisha up the aisle. The school cafeteria seemed an odd place for a memorial service, but it was the largest venue that the county had. The front was lined with seven caskets and filled with floweres.

‘Good morning, Ms. Wormwood.’ The Choir Director met them. ‘We’re all sitting together over here.’ She pointed to the right side of the aisle. ‘It’s so good to see you. I didn’t think you’d be out of the hospital so soon.’

‘She wanted to come.’ Edward explained. ‘Personally, I think she should still be in bed.’

Keisha rolled her eyes before Edward turned the chair and headed for the spot reserved for her. He rolled her into place, locked the wheels, and moved to sit elsewhere.

‘Stay, please, Ed.’ Keisha reached out for his hand.

‘Of course, if that’s what you want, Kie.’ Edward sighed as he took the seat beside her. He clasped his hands in his lap and sat ramrod straight, just as he had in the required chapel services in boot camp.

‘Relax, Ed.’ Alexander spoke as he took the seat beside him.

Edward grunted, eyes straight ahead as he watched Pastor John step up to the podium. His mind failed to comprehend how the man who had just lost his own son could stand up to lead the memorial service.

‘First off, I want to thank all of you for coming today. All of us here are hurting in some way.’ Rev. Walford began. ‘We have all lost our loved ones in this tragedy. No words I can say to you can do a lick of good to change that fact. I could preach to you from the scriptures that we always pull out at these times, but they will sound hollow to many of you. I could do that, and perhaps I will… but first, I want to tell you about the lives of these souls…’

Edward frowned. ‘Where was this holy-roller going with this? Where was the standard Twenty-third Psalm and obligatory prayer? Where was the mournful music guaranteed to bring on the tears?’ This funeral was unlike any he’d ever been to. He glanced around and saw people smiling. ‘What’s with that?’ He wondered.

Beside him, Keisha squeezed his hand. She could see his questioning expression, and smiled. Maybe, just maybe, Pastor John’s words could touch her friend’s hardened heart. Maybe, she hoped, Edward could renew his past relationship with God. Well, she could hope, couldn’t she?

Pastor John looked out over the people. He saw the smiles, the tears, even the broken hearts and despairing spirits. A funeral often brought those who most needed to hear of the love God had for them. Mentally, he prayed that his words would be the water that washed away their sadness, renewed their hope, and instilled the love of God in their souls.

S4 #10: Chapter Eight

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Photo ref: Pixabay.com

Chapter Eight

 

Hours later, at the hospital in Lexington, Keisha Wormwood lay in the recovery room, staring at the ceiling in confusion. Where was she? How did she get here? Why was she hurting so much, everywhere? She blinked back tears as she tried to move and found she couldn’t budge without excruciating pain. She felt a gentle hand brushing at her eyes.

‘Welcome back, Sweetie.’ A kindly nurse smiled down at her. ‘How do you feel?’

‘Hurts.’ Keisha choked out as more tears filled her eyes.

‘I know it does, Hon. Here, see this little plunger? All ya’ gotta do is push it and the pain will go away, okay?’ The nurse placed her thumb over the plunger on the morphine pump. ‘Now, push.’

Keisha did so, and soon the pain began to evaporate. Then, the world blurred and went dark again.

Dr. Alexander Bearfighter stepped out of the elevator, scanning the hall as he went. He was looking for someone from the Ranch. He almost relaxed as he saw Edward Hastings standing just outside of the intensive care unit’s waiting room. They made eye contact as Alexander made short work of the distance between them.

‘Alex.’ Edward nodded.

‘Ed. How is Keisha?’ Alexander anxiously stuffed his hands into his pockets.

‘Kie’s holding her own. Doc came out a few minutes ago to say she made it through surgery and was in recovery. He said he’d be back out soon. He had another patient from the church that needed his skills.’ Edward explained.

‘That would be Thomas.’ Alexander frowned, looking to the floor. ‘Such a tragedy.’

‘Yep. How’s Sparrowhawk?’

‘She’s doing okay. Minor concussion. She’s got some cuts and bruises, but she’ll be okay.’ Alexander’s face lost it’s cool expression as he spoke of his wife’s injuries. ‘They’re going to keep her overnight for observation. She’s not too happy about it, but I insisted. I told her that I needed to check on our people and that I’d feel better if she were here.’

Edward nodded silently. ‘We lost one of our own, in case you didn’t know, yet. We lost Tallman.’

‘I heard from the Sheriff.’ Alexander pulled out a wad of tissue and wiped at his nose.

‘The ladies were lucky.’ Edward noted softly.

‘Yes, they were.’ Alexander agreed as they saw the doctor coming towards them through the door’s glass. ‘Maybe he has some news.’

‘Hello, Dr. Bearfighter.’ The Surgeon greeted him. ‘I understand that Ms. Wormwood is one of your clients and that you have power of attorney for her.’

‘Yes. Do you need me to sign papers?’ Alexander nodded.

‘Already taken care of.’ The Surgeon held up his hand.

‘How is Keisha, Doc?’

‘She’s a mighty strong fighter. Her internal injuries were pretty hefty, and she took a hard blow to the back of her head. The head injury is of more concern than her internal injuries. There is swelling in her brain. We won’t know how significant the brain damage is until we get the swelling down.’ The Surgeon remained grim as he spoke. ‘We were able to stop the internal bleeding and Ms. Wormwood is holding her own at the moment. I have her listed Critical but stable. I’ll upgrade that as she improves.’

Alexander breathed a deep sigh of relief as he closed his eyes for a short, silent prayer. Then, he looked back to the surgeon. ‘When can I see her?’

Edward spoke up. ‘I’d like to be there when she wakes up.’

‘Ms. Wormwood won’t be awake until morning, at least. She’s sedated and on a morphine drip at the moment. Why don’t you go down and be with your wife, Doctor. I understand that she was injured as well. And, Mr. Hastings, I suggest you go on back to the Ranch and catch some sleep.’ The Surgeon suggested.

‘My wife’s injuries are mild. She chased me out of the room, so I’ll be going back to the Ranch.’ Alexander shrugged. ‘I’d rather not leave Ms.Wormwood alone, Doc. We have some security concerns in that regards.’

‘Understood. I can ask security to post an officer outside the unit if that works for you?’ The Surgeon offered.

‘We don’t need a security officer. I’ll be staying with her.’ Edward insisted before Alexander could respond.

Edward and Alexander shared a look that spoke silent volumes.

‘I would feel much better if Edward were by her side, Doc. He’s familiar with the situation, and she knows him.’ Alexander suggested.

The Surgeon seemed to consider the two for a moment before speaking. ‘I have no objection as long as Mr. Hastings does not disturb her. Ms. Wormwood is going to need all the rest she can get over the next several weeks. Rest will help her brain and her internal injuries to heal all the sooner.’ The Surgeon eyed Edward’s huge frame cautiously.

‘I won’t say a word unless she does, Doc.’ Edward smiled and tried his best to control his tone.

‘Very well.’ The Surgeon agreed, opening the secured door as he spoke. ‘If you’ll come with me, Mr. Hastings.’

‘I’ll be back in the morning, Ed.’ Alexander squeezed his shoulder.

The doctor showed him to Keisha’s room and it wasn’t long before Edward was sprawled out across the chair with his ankles crossed under the edge of the bed. He tilted his head back against the wall and was soon snoring loudly as well.

Hours later, Keisha’s eyelids fluttered open and closed several times. What was that horrific sound? It sounded like an engine with a few spark plugs missing. Rolling her head to the side, she crushed her eyes closed against the dizziness before squinting at the source of the sound. A man…chair… snoring? What was a man doing here? And, for that matter, where was here?

Her eyes took in the tube that ran down and under bandages on her arm. Then, she took in the bed railing, and beyond that the tile floor. She scrunched her nose at the antiseptic smells, too. Where was she, anyway? A hospital? How did she get here? What if…?

Suddenly terrified, Keisha tried to move, and groaned against the pain.

Edward bolted upright, instantly awake and alert.

‘Keisha?’ He spoke softly as he rose to stand beside her.

‘What…?’ She choked out.

‘What do you remember?’ He gently asked.

‘Choir practice…’ Keisha frowned in confusion, looking down to the bandage on her wrist. ‘How?’

‘The important thing right now is that you’re okay.’ Edward winked at her.

Keisha moaned.

‘Let me call the nurse for you.’ Edward touched the call button on the bed rail. ‘I promised Doc I’d let you rest.’

Keisha frowned as images swam around in her mind. ‘Explosion. There was an explos –…’

‘Hello, there, Ms. Wormwood.’ The nurse interrupted. ‘Are you in pain?’

Keisha blinked from the nurse to Edward. Suddenly, she couldn’t speak. She couldn’t even utter a sound. She just blinked.

Edward smiled as he touched her hand. ‘Just blink once for yes, and twice for no.’

Keisha blinked once.

‘She’s in pain.’ Edward told the nurse.

The nurse smiled as she pointed to the plunger in Keisha’s hand. ‘All you need to do, Ms. Wormwood, is push this and the pain will go away.’

Keisha’s eyes went from one person to the other. The man seemed to know her, but she had no clue wtho he was.

‘I’ll see that she uses it, Ma’am.’ Edward gently put his hand over Keisha’s and pushed the plunger.

Keisha frowned as the world around her blurred into darkness, again.

Edward used the remote to channel surf until he found a football game to watch. He kept the volume very low so he’d hear Keisha if she stirred. The third quarter was just beginning as a gentle knock followed by a slowly opening door brought him to his feet.

The man who stepped in the door smiled. ‘Hello, Mr. Hastings. I’m Reverend John Walford, Ms. Wormwood’s minister at the Community Church.’

Edward frowned until Alexander stepped into the room behind the minister. ‘Good morning, Ed. Pastor John wanted to come by and pray for Keisha.’

‘Yeah, sure… I’ll just -…’

‘I brought food for you, and a change of clothes.’ Alexander took away his excuse to leave.

‘You’re welcome to pray with us if you’d like to.’ Rev. Walford invited Edward to join him.

Edward crossed to the window and sat down on the sill to open the food bag Alexander had brought him. ‘She’s sleeping… morphine.’ He commented as he bit into the cold sandwich.

Alexander stepped up to the bed and reached out for Keisha’s hand. ‘Good morning, Kie. I brought Pastor John with me.’

Keisha’s eyes fluttered before opening.

‘She’s not talking, again. Blinks yes and no.’ Edward spoke from the window.

Alexander smiled at Keisha when she squeezed his hand. ‘It’s good to see you, too. I brought Pastor John with me.’ Alexander repeated as he looked up and over to the minister.

‘Hi, Keisha. It’s good to see you.’ Rev. Walford took her other hand. ‘I thought you might like me to come and pray with you.’

Keisha squeezed his hand as tears began to fall.

‘Everything’s going to be okay, Sweetie.’ Rev. Walford used a tissue to dab the tears away. ‘It’s hard to see right now, but I know God sees our shared sorrows. We have to believe that He has it all in His hands.

Keisha blinked once and squeezed their hands.

‘Why don’t we talk to God and tell him what’s on our hearts? Would you like to do that, Keisha?’ Rev. Walford asked her, waiting for her to blink her answer before proceeding. ‘God, our Father in heaven, we’d like to speak to you, right now. We are in pain, both body and soul. We don’t understand why You’ve let Your children be hurt so much… Our love for You will not be shaken, and our faith in Your divine power will not fail. God, I ask that You reach down and heal Your daughter Keisha… Heal her broken body… strengthen her body, her mind, and her soul for the days ahead. We ask all of this in Your most Holy Name. Amen.’

Edward watched from the window, thinking of how hollow the minister’s prayer had sounded. He met Alexander’s eyes from across the room, but held his tongue. He looked at Keisha and saw the soft smile on her lips as she slept. It was the first smile he’d seen in days.

‘I am so sorry to hear that you lost your son, John.’ Alexander said as they stepped away from the bed.

‘He died doing what he loved the most… praising God.’ Rev. Walford responded. ‘I draw some comfort from that.’

‘Why?’ Edward asked, his own turmoil coming to the surface. ‘Why should you draw any comfort from what happened? People died. Innocent people died. There’s no sense to it! No sense at all.’

Alexander moved to speak, but Pastor John held up a hand.

‘Sometimes, we don’t know the answer’s, Mr. Hastings. God’s ways are often beyond our comprehension. All we can do is trust that He is in control.’

‘What the hell is that supposed to mean? Just another holy roller excuse.’ Edward snarled. ‘You holy rollers pull out that line every time you really don’t want to answer the question.’

‘I’m sorry you feel that way, Mr. Hastings.’ Rev. Walford stepped over to the window. ‘You’re right, in a sense. There are a lot of questions in this world we don’t have the answers for. I’m not going to lie to you and say that we do. We have to continually remind ourselves that there are some things that are so out of our control that we must simply leave them to God. That is where our faith is put both to the test and to the practice.’

Edward felt a deep clenching within his chest and he noted that his hands were shaking. He looked out the window for a moment, but all he saw was rising flood waters and a head going under for the last time.

Pastor John stepped closer to him sensing from experience that Edward’s silence would lead to something. ‘When I was in Korea, I served on the front lines.’

Edward instantly turned to face the Pastor.

‘I saw far too many of my buddies killed. It rocked my faith, too.’ Pastor John shared. ‘The hardest part was trying to understand the incomprehensible waste of life. Then, came what they call the ‘survivor’s guilt’. That was the hardest part. It’s not something you ever get over. The memories will always be there.

‘Yeah.’ Edward nodded.

‘I had to learn to turn those over to God, too.’ Pastor John told him. ‘It’s not easy to do; and sometimes, I still have flashbacks.’

Alexander remained beside Keisha, holding her hand and putting a finger to his lips when he saw her open her eyes.

‘… If you’d ever like to stop by and talk, or pray, my door is always open, Ed. I mean that, too.’ Pastor John offered. ‘Right now, though, we’re going to leave so Keisha can rest.’

‘We’ll come tomorrow, Kie.’ Alexander spoke as he squeezed her hand. ‘Rest easy. Edward is going to stay with you.’

Keisha blinked.

‘If you need anything, you can call me.’ Alexander told her, then looked up to Edward. ‘That goes for you, too, Ed.’

‘Got it.’ Edward nodded.

Gatehouse East #1- Prelude

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War monument in Warclow, Poland. Photo prompt: Pixabay.com

Prelude

Stephen stood in the shadows of the trees that circled the monument. Even in its holographic state, the  monument still pulled deeply at his soul. He wanted to step forward and lay a hand on the shoulder of the one who knelt in such a solemn state. The sculpture was so very realistic that he felt as if he could almost see it breathing in gasps as sobs shook it’s slender shoulders.

‘She’s not real.’ He reminded himself, shaking his head to dispel the thought. ‘Tamai is dead. The statue is merely a projection; without substance. It is not real.’

Yet, even as he told himself she wasn’t real, the figure slowly rose and turned. His breath caught in his throat. The monument program was not equipped for animation, he knew. His eyes widened as they face within the cloak made eye contact. Instant fear coursed like liquid fire through his nerves. He had seen those eyes before, and he’d known their veiled cruelty first hand.

‘Zani.’ He identified.

She reached out for him.

He froze, terrified.

 

S4 #9: Chapter 7

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Photo Prompt: Getty Images

Chapter 7

Jack snorted and stomped across the lawn. How dare she! How dare she go and say she was in love with Edward. Edward had abandoned her when she had most needed him. He’d gone off to hide in the military while she was left here to suffer at the hands of that miserable excuse for a man, Franklin. And now, now, she was making all nice with Edward. It just was not right, not right at all.

‘Jack.’ Alexander demanded his attention.

‘What?’ Jack yelled back as he spun on his heels.

‘I think we need to have a chat. You’re too upset over this.’ Alexander addressed the issue at hand. ‘You’re angry.’

‘You’re right. I am angry.’ Jack roared. ‘I did everything I could for her, Alex. You know that. I stood by her while she found her way. And then, she went and married that disgrace to the human race! And now, after I’ve saved her life… she goes running to Edward, when she should be running to me! So, yes, I am angry!’

‘Women are very unpredictable, that’s for sure. I’m sure that she appreciates all that you’ve done for her, Jack. I know that I do. You’ve shown her what a man ought to be, and how a good man treats a lady.’ Alexander stroked his ego. ‘And in the end, she has chosen a man who is an honorable soldier for this country. You should be proud. You’ve shown her that not all men are like her ex-husband.’

Jack leaned back against a tree. ‘I love her, Alex. Why can’t she see that?’

‘She does, Jack. Trust me, she does. She knows you love her. She loves you to, but as a brother. Do you understand that. You’ve always been like a big brother to her.’

‘And… and she can’t even tell me that herself. I am learning that sign language she does, just so I can understand her better.’ He shook his head as he swiped at his cheeks.

‘No, she can’t tell you, Jack. I’m not even sure she realizes just how much you do love her. That’s why I’m here right now, talking to you. If you truly love her, you’ll have to accept the reality here, Jack.’ Alexander did what he could to calm Jack down to a reasonable level. ‘But you don’t have to lose everything in this, Jack. You can choose to accept that her love is what it is, and then you can be the best of friends. This could be a good ending for both of you.’

‘Jjaacck?’ Keisha tried to speak from behind Alexander.

‘Keisha?’ Jack looked up and started to move towards her. ‘Keisha, I love you.’

‘Jjaacck.’ Keisha said his name again, a little firmer. ‘I – I – liiccke yyu, too.’

‘Like? Is that all, Keisha? You like me?’ Jack’s countenance fell.

‘Yyes.’ Keisha nodded and wiggled her hand as she spoke. She didn’t want him to misunderstand her words. ‘I liicke yyu.’ Keisha resorted to signs to tell him the same thing she’d overheard Alexander telling him about her thinking of him as a brother. ‘thannn yyu for saaaving mmmuh liffe, Jjaack.’

Jack sniffed, wiping at his eyes. ‘So, that’s how it is, is it? Well, okay, then. I get it. We’re good, Keisha. Big brother…I get that.’

‘I will always be thankful to you, Jack.’ She signed. ‘Always.’

‘If you’ll excuse me, I’m sure that I’m needed at the firehouse.’ Jack stuffed his hands in his front pockets and headed across the lawn to where his jeep was parked.

Keisha stood beside Alexander and watched him leave.

A day later, up on the ridge, he watched from the shadows. He’d helped her find her way… and this, this was how she repaid him. He seethed inside as he watched her sipping tea on Edward’s front porch. All he had to do was remove Edward from the picture, then she would see him. Then, she would be his forever, just like he’d promised her. It was too bad that his twin brother had shown up to spoil his well-thought out plan to win her over. But now, he was taken care of. Finally, he would have his greatest dream…Keisha would be his.

‘You ready to head into town, Kie?’ Edward asked as he stepped out of the bungalow and locked the door.

‘Yes.’

She spoke so soft that it sounded like the very air had answered him. He smiled. The last two days had been completely uneventful. He’d watched her like a hawk since Wednesday. He’d even sat in the corner with a sketchpad as she worked with her stained glass, making rose after rose. All the while, he’d made sketches of her. It was something he hadn’t done in a very long time, sketching that is. Now, he had his sketchbook tucked under his arm as he walked her out to the SUV.

‘Is tonight the last practice?’ Edward asked as he opened the door for her.

‘Yes, it is.’ She said breathlessly as she smiled up at him and gestured him closer. ‘Come here.’

Edward stepped up to her knees. ‘What do you want, Kie?’ He asked in a low voice that didn’t hide his attraction.

Keisha clasped her hand in the front of his shirt and pulled him closer until their lips met. He tried to pull back, but she deepened the kiss. He couldn’t help but respond as she parted her legs so he could get closer. The kiss deepened until they finally broke apart with small gasps.

‘Aw, Kie…why do you do that to me? We don’t have time to…to…’ He winked.

‘Affer?’ She whispered with a grin.

‘Don’t make promises you can’t keep, girl.’ He kissed the end of her nose before stepping back and shutting the door. As he rounded the back of the SUV, he rubbed a hand over his head. She was going to kill him for sure if she kept this up. He’d never make it back to his unit if she kept distracting him from his goals.

‘Calm down, old man.’ He told himself. As he got up into the driver’s seat and fastened his safety belt, he turned to her. ‘After practice, Keisha, we need to have a serious talk. Agreed?’

Keisha shrugged, wondering what had changed so suddenly. She watched him put the SUV in gear and start down the lane, noting how the smile had faded from his face. And how the joy in his eyes had been replaced by something else; a cold, calculating look that could freeze the devil himself. She frowned and looked away from him. Talk…that’s what he wanted to do, talk. She had a feeling that the kind of talk he wanted to have would end with her heart being broken, again.

They drove to the church in silence. A tense, aggravating silence, Edward thought. Just as they were pulling up to the church, Edward’s scanner blared out the tone for a fire run. He stopped in front of the church and paused with his hand on the gearshift as he listened.

‘Are you good from here, Kie?’

Kie looked from him to the church, and back.

‘I can stay if you want.’ He meant what he said, too.

‘I gud.’ She answered.

‘Okay. I’ll be back as soon as I can.’ He leaned over and gave her a peck on her cheek. ‘I love you, Keisha.’

‘I luv you, Ed.’ She replied before reaching for the door handle.

Edward couldn’t hold back the grin that spread across his face. He knew that he’d travel a million miles to hear her say that, again and again. For someone who hadn’t spoken in years, she was really making grand strides. ‘I love you more than you can imagine.’ He spoke to air as she shut the door behind her and headed up the church steps. He watched until she stepped inside, and then floored the accelerator as he headed to the firehouse.

Keisha took her place on the front row with the other sopranos. Excitement was buzzing through the assembled singers. Everyone was ready for their special concert. Once a year, they did a benefit concert to support the volunteer fire department. This year, they were hoping to earn enough in ticket sales to cover the cost of a specialized speed boat used for river rescues. After the spring floods, the timing couldn’t be better.

Keisha opened her music folder on cue, and readied herself to sing out the first notes of her solo that would open the program. It wasn’t a scriptural song, but one the fire department considered their theme song. She took a breath and began…

‘Lean on me, when you’re not strong…’ Her voice echoed in the empty sanctuary.

A few blocks down from the church, one of the local police officers pulled over a pickup truck for a faulty brake lights. It was a routine stop, one where he’d give the driver a warning and then follow them home, just to be on the safe side.

‘Good evening, Sir. Do you know why I stopped you..?’

The officer never saw it coming, the knife that swung out and caught his cheek, that is. ‘Damn it, man.’

The truck sped off.

There was no way in hell that he was going to be stopped tonight, he thought as he pushed the accelerator to the floor. He would get her this time. He’d made sure of that by setting fire to the old warehouse down by the mill. He’d heard dispatch call for all personnel. Only, this time, he wasn’t going to show. This time, he’d leave it in the hands of his Lieutenant. This time, he would redirect his efforts into achieving his goal. He would kill her.

Anger fueled his foot down to the floor as he saw the flashing lights behind him. The scanner in his dash told him that the officer was in pursuit. He wasn’t going to be caught, not if he could prevent it.

No, he had other plans, and those plans did not include the officer on his back bumper.

Suddenly, he slammed on his brakes and swerved into the parking lot at the store. He knew a shortcut through an alley that would bring him out on the old river road, which would dump him back onto main street. If he played his cards right, he’d outfox the officer on duty tonight.

He skidded around the back of the store and into the dark alley, spraying gravel in a fog behind him. So far, the officer was still on his tail. He looked down at the speedometer. He didn’t dare push it any faster, not with the alley being so narrow. He’d just have to wait until he got to the river road to lose his tail.

The scanner buzzed with conversation between the officer and dispatch. So, he’d managed to slice the officer up pretty good. Great.

‘… For, it won’t be long, ‘til you’re going to need someone to lean on…’ The choir’s voices joined hers along with stomping and clapping to carry the rhythm.

At that moment, the church shook to its foundation. A very loud explosion ended the song abruptly as the wall and window broke into a million deadly fragments. The concussive force of the blast hit the back row of the choir with such force that they were blown out of the alter area altogether. The second row of vocalists slammed into the first row and beyond. The first row crumpled under the weight, taking down the mic stands and speakers along with them. No one escaped the blast’s force.

Within moments, the sudden silence was filled with the sounds of injured people crying out for help, and the sirens heading in their direction.

Keisha slowly opened her eyes, frowning. There was something heavy holding her down. She blinked and tried to move. A hand fell down across her face. She saw the hand, the blood. She tried to scream but the sound came out like a croak. Darkness swirled around her, drawing her head back down to the floor.

The air filled with sirens. The dust from the blast was already settling as the first responders entered the sanctuary at a run. Instantly, they headed for the altar area where the choir members lay sprawled out in positions the human body was never meant to lay in. Most of them were unconscious. those who were conscious were sobbing and crying out for help.

‘Let’s start triaging here.’ The lead paramedic called out. ‘Call Careflight and have them send us all the choppers they can. Tell them… looks like twenty, maybe thirty, casualties, unknown conditions.’

‘Aye, Cap.’ Another firefighter acknowledged as he placed the call.

‘This one’s dead, Sir.’ A paramedic gagged as he slid his fingers off the man’s bloody throat.

‘So is this one.’ A second paramedic gulped.

‘Tend to the living.’ The Fire Chief ordered as he joined his paramedics. ‘And, my heaven help us save as many as we can.’

The Reverend was already on his knees beside one of the bodies. ‘My son! My God, why my son?”

‘Got one alive, here. Louie, help me get this body off of her.’ Edward ordered the younger firefighter to action as he drew the hair back from her face and gasped. ‘Kiesha? This is Keisha Wormwood. Someone will need to contact Hope Ranch.’ His voice caught in his throat.

‘Sorry, Sir.’ The younger firefighter acknowledged his co-worker’s pain. ‘She’s alive, Sir.’

‘Great. Let’s get her out from under this mess, then, Louie.’ Edward began lifting another dead body off of her. ‘Then, we’ll assess her injuries.’

‘Small contusion on her forehead, Sir. Possible concussion.’ Lieutenant Jordan began to assess her. ‘Don’t see any broken limbs.’ He ran his hands down her ribcage. ‘No obvious rib breaks… wait… there’s some bruising… we’ve got an internal bleed, Sir. Priority one.’

‘I got her, then. Go to the next one.’ Edward ordered as they gently rolled Kiesha to her back. She moaned softly. Edward felt a tug in his chest at the sound. ‘Dear God, please, let her be okay.’ He prayed.

‘Got another live one here, Sir. Another with possible internal bleeding.’ Lieutenant Jordan spoke from where he was tending to the next unconscious person.

Edwards noted the few choir members who were rising on their own, looking terrified and in shock. He took his mask off as he stood up. With a loud voice, he drew their attention. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, if you can, just sit down on a pew until we can get to you, okay.’

‘My husband!’ One lady screamed as she dove for one of the dead bodies. Another firefighter caught her and held her back while she screamed. Her scream triggered the others to the reality around them. Screams of pain, anguish, and grief rapidly filled the sanctuary.

‘Sir, we’re gonna need more people… anyone who can help.’ Edward called out the Fire Chief.

‘They’re on the way. I put out an all-call to the county.’ Chief Franks answered. ‘In the  meantime, it’s up to us. Let’s see about getting the critical ones out to the landing zone behind the clinic.’

‘Roger that.’ Edward snapped and began directing the firefighters bringing stretchers in.

At a time when mere minutes could mean life or death, the local first responders and volunteers from the street worked in unison to evacuate the church sanctuary. The critical patients were taken to the clinic a block down to await evacuation by chopper. The walking wounded were held in place until they could be evaluated and then transported out to local hospitals. The local fire and police officers worked in tandem, getting everyone cared for in record time.