Chapter 4 - HARD TARGET

“I’ll help him get the medicine, Mom,” said Zach.

“But—” Anna’s stomach roiled. She didn’t want Zach to walk away from her, even in this room of police officers. The stress of the entire day, the adrenaline rush and crash, and now nausea from all the blood seeping down her arm suddenly swamped her.

“I know what I’m supposed to do,” he interrupted. “You taught me what to take if I was ever alone and needed my meds. Right now I need Atenolol. I can do it.” Zach gave her a confident smile and disappeared into the bathroom with Leland clearing the way.

Alone on the sofa, her eyes burned from unshed tears while she waited. I will not panic, she thought, forcing herself to calm her breathing. Zach did know what to do. She’d taught him a lot of independence in the past year, despite his illness.

Her head felt like it was going to explode from trying to figure out why Max would want to prevent Zach from checking into the hospital. Was having the police involved good news or bad, in terms of keeping her son safe? Could this kind of bizarre drama bump Zach from his place on the list?

Before she had time to dwell on that thought, Leland was walking toward her, stopping to speak with two other officers on the way.

“Where’s Zach?” she asked.

“In the bathroom talking to one of the policemen. He got his own pill. Atenolol. It was white. That’s correct, yes?” Leland settled on the sofa beside her, propping his orthopedic boot on the coffee table. “Zach says he’s fine. He’s sitting on the toilet lid, and they’re talking the latest Transformers movie.”

She wanted to believe him—that things could be this simple. But her life and Zach’s illness never were. “Please, absolutely no questions about his dad. He can’t be upset. This is extremely important. He’s so ill. It would be a bad thing.” She wanted to go and check on him herself, but Leland put a gentle hand on her arm.

“They understand. I’ve explained to the officer in charge, and he’s telling the others about Zach’s heart. They won’t question him, but they would like to talk to you . . . in case there was something you needed to tell the police that you didn’t want your boy to overhear?”

She turned to stare at him, hard. Could she tell him? He didn’t flinch under the scrutiny, still she remained silent.

“I appreciate that you’re scared, but you’ve got a real mess here, and you have to trust someone. Would you feel more comfortable with social services?” he asked.

“No! Absolutely not.” She surprised herself with the vehemence of her own response.

“Alright.” He was looking at her like she was a frightened animal that he wasn’t sure would bite or run.

“I’m sorry. I’m . . . God, I’m overwhelmed. Can you give me a minute?”

He nodded as the officer came back with the first aid kit. “No problem. Let us look at this cut while you decide what you’re going to do. You’re still bleeding quite a bit.”

She looked down only to see her blood all over the sofa. Bile rose in the back of her throat. The officer pulled supplies from the kit and went to get water while Leland started cleaning her arm.

This was crazy. She had to tell someone what was going on. Leland took her wrist as he wiped her fingers with sterile gauze. His hands were large and made hers look so small.

The visual distracted her enough to take her mind off the nausea and gather her thoughts. One: She needed help. Two: This guy seemed like he genuinely wanted to be it. And three: She had to start somewhere.

“My son, he needs a heart transplant, but there’s no donor. He’s AB negative and that’s very rare. He’s checking into CTC, Children’s Transplant Center, tomorrow for a left ventricular assist device insertion. LVAD for short. The hospital is skittish about bad PR. This incident with Max worries me. I can’t do anything that would jeopardize Zach’s place on the transplant list.”

“You think they’d bump him if his father were arrested for assault?”

“I don’t know, but I can’t take that chance. If they thought Zach wouldn’t be safe coming home? Yes, they might bump his spot or make him wait for another heart while we straightened this out with the courts.”

“It doesn’t seem fair to punish your son for his father’s behavior,” said Leland.

“CTC doesn’t operate like a democracy, and they aren’t social services. They give the limited number of organs accessible to the patients with the very best chances for recovery.”

“So they’re pragmatists?” asked Leland.

She nodded. “The administrators at the center define the word. In my more reasonable moments, I know it makes sense. Where do you think a donor heart has more chance of success? With a child whose dad beats her mother every night or with a child in a stable home with loving supportive parents?”

Leland swallowed audibly before answering. “I can see that, but it’s harsh, isn’t it?” He tossed the bloody gauze on the coffee table and reached for more. “It sounds like being on probation,” he added.

She held up her arm as he wrapped a sterile bandage around the injury. “That’s a good analogy. As the patient, you know this going in, but there is no recourse if you’re unhappy with CTC and their selection process . . . except to go somewhere else and start over with the waiting.”

“That sounds extremely difficult.”

“Understatement of the decade. We’ve been on the list for over a year. I can’t . . . I won’t start over again. Zach is number one in line now, but he’s out of time.”

She touched her shorts pocket containing the pager as she spoke. “He’s got a pacemaker and he’s about to have a heart pump installed. That could buy him up to another year if we need it, but the surgery for the pump itself is brutal.”

“So you and your husband have had an intense year?”

“Yes, but it got better when he moved out six months ago. At least I thought it did. Max couldn’t handle the doctors or the day-to-day uncertainty. I found it easier to do this without him than dealing with his issues on top of everything else.”

“Do you think you need a lawyer?” asked Leland.

“I don’t know what I need. But you were right when you said it was a mess.”

The officer returned with the water and asked if she would feel up to giving her statement. She didn’t want to. She had no idea what she was going to say “officially” to the police, and the walls of the room were closing in.

“Can you hold off on the statement until we get her arm taken care of?” Leland asked, seeming to pick up on her distress.

The officer nodded and gathered the used gauze before he backed off.

Leland’s fingers were especially gentle as he continued to clean the blood away, heedless of his dress shirt and slacks. “I’m sorry but there’s no way to avoid the ER. Stitches are inevitable here.”

“I tried to catch the mirror as it fell. That was foolish, I know, but Zach was standing beside me. I was scared it was going to fall on him.”

“Makes sense. They’ll get you to the hospital and stitched up as soon as this is over.”

As soon as this is over?

As far as she was concerned, this was just beginning. Before it had only been the LVAD and transplant, worries that were huge enough in themselves, but now it was Max trying to take Zach and kill her. While this man had listened and empathized with her concerns over Zach’s place on the transplant list, explaining the events of the past seven hours to Leland Hollis would sound fantastic. It was a lot to ask of someone, to believe such an outrageous story.

A sense of hopelessness overwhelmed her along with a fresh wave of nausea. “Can you excuse me a minute?” She stood and eased past the officers to walk toward the bathroom.

Feeling light-headed and dizzy, her mind raced as her emotions swirled. She was halfway across the room when her vision went dark around the edges. She tried to sit but missed the bed as the room began to spin and the floor rose up to meet her.

Leland rushed toward her and her last coherent thought was: He moves awfully fast for a guy in a boot cast.

Leland watched Anna Mercado sinking to the ground, hoping he could catch her before she hit the floor. The damned boot slowed him down. He almost made it, but tripped at the last minute. They landed together in a heap. Breaking her fall with his body, he settled with a humff on his back—his arms full of soft, curvy woman.

The breath was knocked out of him, but he didn’t mind this type of assault. Anna Mercado wasn’t exactly a burden, and his body was going on autopilot in response to having a woman lying on top of him for the first time in longer than he cared to remember. He took a deep breath.

God she smelled good. Her skin felt like silk under his fingertips as he ran his hand down her arm in an attempt to lift her off his chest.

“Hey, you okay?” he asked for the second time, gently rolling her from his body to the carpeted hallway floor. Her eyelids didn’t flutter, and he felt the first stirrings of alarm overriding his arousal. She wasn’t coming to and her face was chalk white. One of the officers called for an ambulance as her kid started to panic.

“Mom? Mom? Mom, wake up!” Zach slid to the floor beside them.

Leland was concerned on two levels. Anna was in a dead faint, and her kid’s lips had gone from healthy pink to pale blue in fifteen seconds. He checked her breathing. Jesus, she’d explained the heart situation. Now he was worried both of them would need CPR.

Her hair smelled like lemons. A completely inappropriate and out-of-context thought, but right there with him just the same.

“What’s wrong with her?” Zach demanded with a shaking voice.

“I don’t know. Has she been sick?” he asked.

The boy shook his head. “Not that I know of.”

Her breathing was shallow, but steady, as Leland checked her pulse. Her fingers were long and slim with medium-length nails painted fire-engine red.

Zach stared down at her and his eyes filled. “She’s been really stressed out lately with all my heart stuff, but nothing like this has ever happened before. What do you think is wrong?”

Leland shook his head. He had no idea, but keeping Zach calm was paramount while they waited on the EMTs. “Get me a wet wash cloth from the bathroom.” The boy leaped up, obviously longing for some way to help.

“What’s wrong with her?” Zach asked again, scurrying back seconds later with the dripping cloth.

Sirens sounded in the distance.

“I don’t know, but they’ll figure out what’s going on.” Leland nodded toward the door and the increasing noise.

Anna’s eyes fluttered open as the paramedics came in. By the time they had her on the gurney she was awake, if not fully coherent.

The EMTs were questioning Leland, and he didn’t have much information for them beyond the obvious. He didn’t want to be sucked into this any further than he already was. Zach was trying to answer some of their questions, too, but even between the two of them, they didn’t know much.

“We need to get her to the hospital, to see what the problem is.” The first EMT said. They started rolling the gurney out of the apartment.

Anna was now fully awake and agitated. “I don’t need to go to the hospital. I’m fine. Just a little dehydrated. I got dizzy.”

“I’m afraid they’re going to insist,” said Leland. “You were out for several minutes, plus with that cut. They need to stitch you up.”

“But what about Zach? I can’t leave him here alone.”

The boy was there beside her—leaning down, wild concern in his eyes.

“Mom, are you okay? You scared me when you wouldn’t wake up.”

She put her hand up to his face. “Honey, I’m fine. Really. They’re just going to fix my hand.” She turned her face to Leland’s. The question of her son’s well-being still in her eyes.

He didn’t hesitate, despite his earlier resistance to becoming any more involved. “It’s okay,” said Leland. “I’ll take care of him.”

“But I don’t know you,” she said, oceans of uncertainty in her eyes. “Who are you?”

The unspoken question was clear. Anna knew his name. What she meant was, who would offer to do such a thing for a stranger?

He answered the only way he could. “I’m someone you can trust.”

Copyright © 2013 by Kay Thomas. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.


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© Kay Thomas 2015