"Oh, Jenny," she whispered, a question in her lament. "What happened?" Danielle wished her sister's bright, blue eyes would snap open and she'd reply with some witty comeback like, "I played chicken with a tree, and the tree won."
A creak sounded behind Danielle so she swiped a hand across her wet cheek. She bit her lower lip to keep it from trembling, even though she knew the nurse would understand. Drawing in a breath, she turned on her heel and her heart stopped. Instead of finding a nurse in scrubs, she found Officer Patrick Kingsley standing in the doorway, dressed in a white uniform shirt and black pants, hat in hand, a solemn expression on his face.
"Glad you made it." He tossed his hat on the seat near the end of the bed and took a step toward her. Her body stiffened at his proximity.
"She's my sister." Her traitorous heart fluttered. She hadn't seen Patrick in fifteen years. Hadn't heard his voice until a few hours ago when he had called with news of the accident. In her hazy state of mind, it had taken her a few moments to understand why the person who had crushed her teenage heart all those years ago was calling in the middle of the night. What she had thought was a warped dream had quickly become a real-life nightmare.
"Any change?" Patrick seemed to be studying her face. She was sure her neck and cheeks were beet red by now. Was he, like her, amazed how time had a way of transforming a person's features? He appeared the same, yet different somehow. As if not only time but life's journey had subtly changed nuances of his features. The room suddenly felt smaller. A warmth flowed through her body. Maybe he wouldn't notice the pulse leaping in her neck.
"No. No change in Jenny's condition." Danielle's words came out strained. Being in his presence reminded her of the insecure teen she had once been. The one who had been abandoned by her mother, yet still had clung to the magical idea of happily-ever-after. Patrick had made her believe. Until he'd left her too.
The sting of that summer had the potential to slice her heart, even now. Unable to raise her eyes to meet his, Danielle shifted her attention back to Jenny. She was deeply angry with herself for even thinking about Patrick while her sister lay broken and battered.
"She's a mess. Why didn't you tell me on the phone? You made it seem like she was okay." Danielle despised the tremble in her voice.
When the silence stretched for too long, she persisted, "Why weren't you upfront with me? You should have told me--" she lowered her voice out of respect for Jenny, "--the truth about her condition." She stroked her thumb across her sister's hand, careful to avoid the bandage covering the tubes inserted into her veins. Her stomach did a little flip. There was a reason she had studied law instead of medicine, despite her grandmother's wishes.
"You had to fly from Atlanta alone," Patrick said-- a statement, not a question.
Alone? She bristled. Why had Patrick Kingsley assumed she had to travel alone? Her grandmother had probably filled him in. Had told him how she spent all her time working and didn't have time for anything or anyone else. She berated herself for feeling even the slightest bit embarrassed. Hadn't she created the life she wanted? Being alone wasn't a sin. Relieved she didn't have to meet his gaze, she covered her sister's hand with her own. Why did she care what he thought?
"Would you have changed your plans if you knew the seriousness of her condition?" His voice grew closer. Still refusing to turn around, she sensed him standing a foot or two off her right shoulder. He was much broader than she remembered. Of course he was. The person she knew had been a boy. Standing here was a man. A man who had gotten married, been deployed to Iraq and experienced the tragedy of losing his wife. A tragedy beyond anything she had ever known.
"Tell me what you know about my sister's accident," Danielle said. She braced for the answer, needing to ground herself in the moment. In the details. Like how her sister's jagged nails stood in contrast to her own manicured pink tips. Gently, she turned over her sister's hand. Calluses toughened Jenny's fingertips, no doubt from hours working in the flower shop.
Endless questions swirled in her brain. How had her sister ended up in a one-vehicle accident down some lonely road? Had she been on her way to visit someone? Had she been drinking? She mentally shook her head. No way. She refused to believe that. Not after everything their alcoholic mother had put them through as kids.
The sharp edge of fear poked at her. How would you know? You haven't been home in over a year. Closer to two. She pushed the thought aside and searched for more logical reasons. Texting maybe? An animal darting into the road? Millions of valid reasons didn't include alcohol.
But she needed to know. Uncertainty and unanswered questions made her skin crawl. Maybe if she controlled a little bit of what was going on, the knot in her stomach would ease.
Patrick hesitated. She sensed he was holding back, measuring his words. She refused to be spoon-fed. "Tell me, Patrick. I'm a big girl. I can handle whatever it is you have to say. Was she drinking?" She folded the edge of the sheet and smoothed it between her fingers, her pulse roaring in her ears.
"I don't have much to tell." Tendrils of unease wound their way up her spine as he spoke. "We're waiting on the toxicology reports, but at this time we don't believe she was drinking." He touched her shoulder, his solid hand warm and comforting.
All part of his job, she quickly reminded herself.
"A passerby noticed her car off the road on Route 78 about one in the morning," he added.
"Where was she going?" She glanced over her shoulder and his fingers brushed her cheek.
"We're still investigating."
Danielle shook her head and backed away from his touch. She needed to think. She dug her fingers under her hair at the back of her neck. A tension headache spread up the base of her brain. "Please, tell me whatever it is you know." The Patrick she had known always had such an open, honest face, but now his expression seemed shuttered. Her stomach clenched. Was he hiding something from her? Or had age taught him how to hide his feelings?
Running a hand across his chin, Patrick's gaze shifted to Jenny. Reluctance was evident in his eyes. "We found Jenny's vehicle off the road. Wedged between two trees. She was unconscious." Fully meeting her gaze, his eyes darkened. His broad chest expanded with a deep breath before he let it out slowly. "No skid marks. No witnesses. No other victims."
A realization crept into her consciousness. Jenny's frail condition pained Patrick. Why hadn't she noticed right away? Mayport was a small town. Everyone knew each other, and Patrick lived next door to Jenny and her grandmother. He knew Jenny. Probably better than she did.
"I'm sorry." She pressed her palm to her forehead and blinked back the tears. She turned around, unwilling to break down in front of him. She reached over and ran a strand of Jenny's soft auburn hair--the same shade as her own--through her fingers. "I'm trying to make sense of it."
He cupped her shoulder, sending a warm tingle across her flesh. She resisted the urge to lean into him for comfort.
"Sometimes these things don't make sense. We have to trust in God's plan," he said in a soothing voice.
Danielle lowered her head and gritted her teeth. Trust didn't come easily to her.
"Would you like to say a prayer?"
Danielle's mouth worked, but the words wouldn't come. A flush of goose bumps blanketed her skin. She tilted her head. The heat from Patrick's hand radiated up to her cheek. She had long ago given up on prayer and on God. Yet, something subtle chipped away at the armor surrounding her heart. Who was she to deny her sister the benefit of a prayer? Even if in her heart of hearts she didn't believe it would work.
"Okay," she whispered through a too-tight throat. Her acquiescence stemmed more from superstition--or maybe feelings of helplessness--than fear of God.
"Heavenly Father--" Patrick bowed his head, one hand still on Danielle's shoulder, the other rested on Jenny's forearm, "--please place Your hands upon Jenny. Guide the doctors and nurses responsible for her care. Heal her body. Watch over her and protect her. We lay this in Your hands. Amen."
Patrick kept his head bowed in prayerful silence. She tried to do the same, but the beeping monitor invaded her peaceful thoughts. His comforting touch now seemed too intimate. Too close. Too much weight on her thin shoulder.
Danielle ducked away from him and snatched her overnight bag from the floor near the foot of the bed. Working her lower lip, she hoisted the strap of the bag over her shoulder. "I need to see Gram. Make sure she's okay. The nurse said the physician wouldn't be available to meet until later this afternoon. I may as well go now." The words spilled out as Danielle tried to make sense of the earth shifting under her feet.
In order to restore order, she needed to do something concrete. Create a list. Check things off. Because standing over her sister's broken body saying prayers to a God who had long ago forsaken her, brought her back to a dark place she didn't care to revisit.
"I'll take you home to Gram," Patrick said, concern softening his rugged features.
An unexpected smile tugged at the corner of Danielle's mouth. She had forgotten the familiar way in which he referred to her grandmother. Although Gram had never come out and said it, Danielle suspected she'd always had a special place in her heart for Patrick--the kind teen who had taken her grandchildren under his wing even though his own mother had given him grief for it.
"Come on." Patrick reached for her overnight bag. She let the strap drop from her shoulder. Handing the bag over to him, their fingers brushed. A warm tingle surged up her arm, threatening to undo all the years she had worked to forget about the boy next door. To forget the fantasy of a silly teenager.
Patrick had run off and married someone else, hadn't he? That fact had always sobered her up quickly.
He held out his palm, inviting her to walk ahead of him. She lifted her index finger and returned to her sister's side. She pressed a gentle kiss to Jenny's warm forehead. "Rest well, baby sis." Tears pricked the back of her eyes.
"She's going to be okay." Patrick's voice sounded husky behind her.
Danielle's eyes slid shut and she nodded, unable to speak around a lump of emotion. Faith gave people hope. She wished a person could learn faith from a textbook. She had always been a good student. But some things just were. Or, in her case, weren't.
She leaned in close so only her sister could hear. "Please be okay. You can't leave me and Gram."
When she turned around, she found Patrick studying her with kind eyes. Heat swept up her neck and warmed her cheeks. Had he heard her childish plea? Inwardly, she shook her head. No one heard her whisper.
Not even Patrick's God.