Different Circumstances: Part 2 of ? by Marzee Doats
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Thursday, September 21, six hours after the bombs
"What do you two think you're doing?" Dr. April Green demanded of Jake and Heather, glaring. Her fierce expression was lost on them however as they were effectively blinded by the beam of the lantern-style flashlight she carried, and currently had aimed squarely at them. "You're - you're canoodling!" April accused, her voice squeaking with indignation.
Against his side, Jake felt Heather start to laugh, her warm breath dampening the sleeve of his hospital gown. Despite April's histrionics, Jake was relieved. Heather's laughter, her amusement at this ridiculous situation, was the first clear sign he'd had that she was coming through this experience with her spirit intact.
The ambulance trip from the gas station to the clinic had taken less than ten minutes, after which April and another doctor had poked and prodded them both for about an hour. April had declared that he had a concussion and a two inch laceration to the thigh, and that Heather had a hairline fracture of the tibia. The clinic was packed, the staff overworked, and they were both exhausted, so April had commandeered the last semi-private room for them, promising to cast Heather's leg in the morning when things had calmed down some. Through it all, Heather had hardly spoken, withdrawing into herself, a very un-Heather-like response that had scared the hell out of Jake. And that was why, fifteen minutes after April had installed them in their room - in separate hospital beds - he hadn't hesitated to join Heather in hers when she asked him, ever so quietly, to do so.
"Uh, warden," Jake grumbled at his sister-in-law, "Do you think you could stop trying to blind us?"
"Oh, sorry," April apologized, pointing the flashlight at the floor. In the next breath though, she was back to scolding. "What in the world do you think you're doing?" she asked again. "I did not pull a completely nepotistic string, and give you two the last available room in the clinic so you could -"
"Canoodle!" Heather finished for her, laughing harder and louder now.
"Exactly!" April agreed. She placed the flashlight upright on the rolling table next to the hospital bed. The light hit the ceiling and then reflected down on them, giving the room an eerie glow, and allowing them all to see, somewhat, in the otherwise pitch black of the clinic. She turned, hands on hips, to stare them both down, prompting Jake to tighten the arm he had around Heather. "I don't suppose you're going to play nice, and go back to your own bed, like a good boy, right?"
Jake rolled his eyes. "When was the last time anyone besides my mother referred to me as a 'good boy'?"
"Besides," Heather interjected, grinning mischievously, "You'd canoodle too, April, if you hadn't seen Eric in three months."
April sighed, shaking her head, obviously trying not to laugh. "Maybe that's what we need to do - canoodle."
"Why do you both keep saying 'canoodle'?" Jake asked, looking between his wife and sister-in-law as if he was trying to gauge whether they had both lost their minds.
"Because that's what Gramps used to always say about the two of you," April answered. "Isn't it?" She pulled a pen light out of her coat pocket. "I actually came in here for a reason - a medical reason. I was going to wake you up - because you're supposed to be resting," she continued, pointing at Jake, "And check on that head of yours."
"You don't remember that?" Heather asked Jake, twisting to look up at him. "Seriously, Gramps said something about our 'canoodling' at least once a week."
April moved around the bed, and began to check Jake's vision. "Oh, he said it more often than that," she argued. "You may have only heard it once a week, but I'd guess that's because you two were always disappearing to canoodle." A wicked grin blossomed on April's face. "Blushing, Jake?" she accused sweetly.
He didn't answer, and April reverted to doctor mode. "You seem to be doing fine. Your eyes look better, no dilation. How do you feel?"
"Persecuted," Jake answered. "I hit my head, April," he admitted, "And I was logy there for awhile, but I've had a concussion before, and I don't feel like that now."
"Well, you do have the patented Green family hard head," she reasoned. "It must have done you some good. How's your leg?"
"Sore," he told her. "It'll be fine."
"Well then, let's deal with you, missy," April declared, walking back around the bed to stare down at Heather. "You really need to take this," she said, waving a single dose pill packet in Heather's face.
"I don't want any pain medication," Heather protested, glaring at April. "We already went through this."
Jake pulled up, careful not to jostle Heather, concerned for her leg. He looked down at her, worry written on his face. "You haven't had any meds? No wonder you're still awake."
"Exactly my point," April interjected.
Heather shook her head. "No. I don't want be knocked out or loopy, or anything like that," she argued. "I don't want anything that would affect - affect me negatively."
"Don't worry, we're saving the Vicodin for the people who really want it," April joked half-heartedly. "It's just Tylenol, Heather. It'll be fine," she assured, "And, it's doctor's orders."
Jake couldn't believe that April was only giving Heather an over the counter drug. "Are you sure she doesn't need something stronger?" he asked.
"This should be enough to take the edge off, let her sleep, and not make her loopy," April said. "Of course," she continued, eyeing Heather, "If you want to keep fighting me on this, I am going to start pushing the heavy duty stuff."
"It's fine, Jake. I'll take this, but I don't want anything else." Heather sighed, and held out her hand.
April tore open the packet, and shook out the two caplets. She found the water pitcher on the bedside table, and poured a paper cup of water for Heather, who accepted it and, finally, took the pills.
"Okay, then," April proclaimed, "I have other patients, and you two aren't listening to me anyway, so I'm going to ignore the fact that you're in the wrong bed," she said, glaring at Jake one more time for affect, "And go. Be careful of her leg, please. And, get some sleep, both of you."
With that, April collected her giant flashlight and left the room. Heather snuggled against Jake's side, yawning. He waited a moment, until he heard the door latch closed, then asked quietly, "What's up with April and Eric, anyway?"
"Nothing," Heather replied, and he could feel her shaking her head against his arm. "And, I mean that literally. They're still living together, but I don't know when they spend any time together, outside of your mom's Sunday night dinners." She started to roll on her side, forgetting for a moment about her leg, groaning when she realized that it wouldn't work. Her head dropped back, banging against Jake's shoulder. "Sorry," she mumbled, turning to press a kiss to his jaw. "Other than that, I really don't know."
"And all proceedings of the 'It Aint Easy Bein' Green' club are, of course, secret."
"Jake, there is no club," Heather protested, futilely, she knew. Jake had started to call any occasion on which she and April did something together - went out to lunch or to see a movie - without anyone else in the family, the 'It Aint Easy Bein' Green' club, and nothing Heather ever said dissuaded him from this belief. Rather, he claimed to be jealous of their chance to 'bitch and moan' about the hassles and annoyances inherent in being one of the Jericho Greens. "There's no reason April and I can't go out shopping or to lunch without it having to be all about the rest of the family," she continued. "We're allowed to be friends."
Jake had only brought up the 'It Aint Easy Bein' Green' club to provoke a reaction, and was gratified to get one. It made him think again that Heather's earlier, introverted behavior had been a momentary reaction, a coping mechanism, and nothing more. "Sure you are. Whatever you say," he answered blandly, knowing that his words were as likely to irritate as they were to soothe.
Heather took the bait, grumbling, "Look, even if I knew anything specific, I'd know it in confidence, so I couldn't tell you!" She shifted against him again, trying to find a comfortable position, but with little success. "What I do know - suspect, really - is that I know a lot more about what you do every day than April knows about Eric."
"That bad, huh?" Jake murmured against her brow. He held her close, not sure what else he could do to offer her relief.
"At least we talk on the phone, we email," she continued, yawning again. Jake hoped the Tylenol was kicking in. "I may not know what you do every minute of the day, but I know what you're reading and what you think about it, what food you miss, what's on your iPod."
Jake chuckled. "My iPod's in my wrecked car, out on route 40, along with everything else I had with me." He groaned, realizing suddenly, "I left my sat phone out there. We coulda used that."
They didn't speak for a few moments, and Jake began to hope that Heather was falling asleep, although he didn't think so from the sound of her breathing. Finally though, she interrupted the stillness of the room, asking quietly, "What happens now? Are you going to be called back?"
"I'm not in the military," he reminded. His hand found its way to the top of her head, and he combed his fingers through her hair, massaging her scalp. "No one can force me back to work, and what I do isn't exactly vital to the functioning of the country."
"But, how many people are dead?" Heather responded, suddenly awake again, argumentative. "The government's going to want all hands on deck. They'll want you back, maybe in a different agency -"
"Look," Jake interrupted, "If it was just an accident, if we wake up in the morning, and the power's on, and the phones are working ... There are still two cities that are gone, and you're right, that's a lot of people."
His hand moved down to cup her cheek, and then Heather felt his lips on her forehead, the bridge of her nose, and finally against her mouth. He was trying to calm her, and although normally this would have irked her, tonight Heather was grateful.
"It'll take years to recover from just that," Jake continued, speaking softly. "If there are more cities, if the government is gone, even if just parts are gone, it'll be a generation or more." He paused, exhaling deeply. "I'm sure there's something I could do out there," he told her. "But there's more I can do here. We have to be our own priority," Jake insisted. "You and me, the family, the town."
"You mean I finally get back the gentleman rancher I fell in love with?"
Heather meant the remark to be teasing, a little levity in their suddenly serious discussion, and was surprised to feel Jake's arms stiffen around her. "Jake, I didn't mean -"
He stopped her. "It's okay. You have every right to feel the way you do about my job. It hasn't been how I wanted it either, especially this last assignment. I never meant to..." Jake paused, searching for the right word. "To deceive you," he decided, sighing. "I mean, I told you exactly what I did on our first date -"
"I know," Heather agreed softly. Somehow she found his hand in the darkness, lacing their fingers together. "And, I appreciated that, don't get me wrong," she told him, starting to laugh. "You have to admit, it was kind of intense for a first date. But, it didn't matter. I was half in love with you by the end of dinner the first night we met, and that wasn't a date."
"Heather," Jake objected, squeezing her fingers.
"What? I was!" she declared. "It's not a bad thing. I've never been rational when it comes to you, Jake Green," Heather mused, "Which should've scared the hell out of me, but it didn't."
He kissed her again, and Heather knew he meant to stop her more than anything else. They had strayed into territory that Jake wasn't completely comfortable with, and normally she respected that. But this night, with everything that had happened, with the knowledge that it was miracle he wasn't dead, she couldn't stop herself.
"You didn't lie to me, Jake," she assured him when she could. "I could've run screaming in the other direction - I considered it, very briefly - but that was the last thing I wanted to do. I loved you. I love you," she declared simply.
"Heather," he tried again, but she cut him off.
"Jake," she interrupted, "I just have one more thing to say."
"Fine," he chuckled, giving in. "Go."
"Don't let it go to your head," she ordered. "It was at least a month before I was completely in love with you."
It was a moment before Jake responded at all, and then he just laughed, his chest rumbling beneath Heather's ear, causing her to smile. "I love you, Heather," he told her, searching for her chin in the dark. He tilted her head so he could kiss her softly, and then pulled back no more than an inch or two. Their eyes locked, despite the utter lack of light. "And, I'm not going anywhere, not anymore," he promised. "You're stuck with me."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Friday, October 12, five years before the bombs
Strictly speaking, Heather took longer than needed to change her clothes. She played the conversation with Jake over in her mind, berating herself. How could she be so irrational? And, then, how could she tell him she was sure he was a 'good person' when even he warned her not to jump to conclusions? What was it about Jake Green that caused her to toss every rule she lived by out the window? Well, Heather decided, she hadn't tossed out every rule; she hadn't yet invited him to sleep with her, after all. Contemplating that possibility, however, did nothing for her equilibrium.
She checked her clothes - jeans, blue long-sleeved shirt, running shoes - in the mirror one last time, then exited the Green's guest room. She retraced her steps to the front door, and continued back down the hall, as instructed, to the kitchen, where she found Jake and his grandfather.
"Cookie?" Jake offered, pointing to a plate of chocolate chip cookies on the end of the long farm table that dominated the far end of the large room.
"Thanks," Heather answered, taking one off the plate, and accepting the seat that Grandpa Green pulled out for her. She took a deep breath, deciding that this wasn't nearly as awkward as she had worried it would be. She was even able to smile like a normal person when Jake pushed a glass across the table to her, then a carton of milk.
"We used to have our own milk cows," Grandpa Green told Heather while she poured herself a short glass of milk, "But most of the land's rented out now, and we just have the horses, for the breeding business."
"You're forgetting about your evil chickens," Jake reminded, breaking a cookie in half and dunking it in his own glass of milk. "Want another?" he asked Heather, moving the plate within her reach.
"My chickens aren't evil!" Grandpa Green protested, clearly affronted. "You just have to know how to talk to them."
Jake ignored his grandfather, addressing Heather. "These are evil, Lilliputian chickens," he told her, winking. "If they could just get a hold of a ball of string, they would totally attack and tie us down in the coop."
Heather giggled, but luckily managed to not spray him with cookie crumbs. She swallowed, and said, "Please tell me that the evil chickens are not on the tour!"
Grandpa Green protested the innocence of his chickens again, but Jake wouldn't have it. "They're completely evil," he argued. "In-need-of-an-exorcist evil. No way are they on the tour."
Jake waited while Heather finished her second cookie, and then stood, asking, "Ready? Do you have a coat?"
"Yes, and yes," Heather answered, standing. "It's in my car." She followed Jake to the back door, where he donned his own coat. She realized then that Grandpa Green hadn't followed, and turned to look back at him. "Aren't you coming, Mr. Green?"
He smiled kindly. "No, you two will have an easier time of it without me along. Jake will show you around outside, and then we can talk about the rest of your ideas over supper."
"Oh," Heather murmured, suddenly feeling very awkward again. How was she going to manage a walk around the Green Ranch without somehow throwing herself at Jake? "Okay," she continued, "But I don't want to interrupt your - your plans for the evening. I certainly didn't mean to - to invite myself to dinner."
"Please interrupt," Jake requested, wringing his hands in obvious exaggeration. "Because I'm pretty sure the only plans Gramps has involve our millionth rematch at chess."
"I'm still trying to teach him how to play," Grandpa Green added. "Slow learner."
Jake laughed, shaking his head. "Aw, I let you win."
Grandpa Green cleared his throat, his tone turning serious. "Miss Lisinski, we would be happy to have you join us for supper this evening. It will give us a chance to discuss your proposal, and it'll save Jake from having to talk about his trip to Denver, which I'm sure he'll appreciate." The older man smiled. "That is, of course, unless you already have plans for the evening?"
Heather shook her head 'no'. "Nothing beyond a video rental and correcting spelling tests," she told him.
"Then it's settled," Grandpa Green declared.
Heather followed Jake out of the farmhouse. The sun was low in the sky, just beginning to set, and she finally acknowledged Eric Green's reasoning. He seemed spry for eighty, but he certainly couldn't move as fast as she and Jake would be able to on their own.
Jake waited while she retrieved her coat from her car, and then began to explain his plan for their tour. "We should start with the water tower," he told her, pointing to the structure, unmistakable even to a city girl like Heather, that stood about two hundred yards farther down the gravel road they had driven in on. "It hasn't been used for water storage since long before I was born," he continued as they started walking, "But, it does offer the best view of the whole ranch, and Gramps has always insisted on maintaining it, so it's safe." He shot her a sideways look. "You aren't afraid of heights, are you?"
"Nope," Heather assured him.
"Good," he acknowledged with a nod. "After that, I can take you to the horse barns - there are three of 'em. Do you like horses?"
"I'm a girl, so yes," Heather told him. "Although, I haven't been around them much," she admitted. "You're gonna laugh when I tell you this, but I had to beg my mother for three summers straight before she let me go to horse camp."
Heather groaned. "You know, a day camp where they teach horsemanship basics. Safety, grooming. You learn to ride well enough to complete the little obstacle course they set up."
"And, your parents had to pay money for this?" Jake guessed, chuckling. "That's quite a racket!"
"It was expensive," Heather admitted. "But, how else do city kids get the chance?"
"Too bad that'd never fly in Jericho," Jake said. They had reached the water tower, a wooden structure that looked weathered but in good repair. "I could open Jake Green's Horse Camp. I'd have fun with the obstacle course," he laughed, winking at her again, as he led her around to the far side of the tower, where there was a built-in ladder. "Ladies first."
"Okay," Heather agreed, thinking that at least this way she wouldn't be distracted by the opportunity to ogle Jake's backside, as she'd found herself doing while he'd changed her tire. No, this time it would be his turn to ogle her. Heather could feel the heat rise in her cheeks at that thought, but she comforted herself that at least, with the brilliant sunset going on around them, maybe he couldn't see her blushing. "Okay," she repeated, putting her foot on the ladder's lowest rung.
They climbed the forty feet or so to the top of the water tower in silence. Heather was just starting to look around when Jake made it to the top. "Wow," she breathed, taking in the landscape around her.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" he asked, moving to stand next to her at the railing.
Heather nodded enthusiastically, smiling. "It just goes on forever," she murmured. "I'm used to buildings, and even in Jericho - the town proper - there are still buildings everywhere. Up here," she glanced at him sideways, their gazes locking, "The buildings are inconsequential. They just melt into the ground. Everything is just so vast."
"Where did you grow up?" Jake asked quietly.
"New York," she told him. "Upstate, not the City. Buffalo."
"Niagara Falls, right?"
"Same area," Heather agreed. "Have you been to the Falls?"
"Flew over them once," Jake told her, reaching absently for her hand. He led her a few steps along the catwalk, and around the corner. The deck widened considerably on this side of the water tower, and there was a small bench built into the wall. "Have a seat," he offered.
Heather settled herself, able to breathe again as Jake's fingers slipped from around hers. "They're - they're more impressive from the ground. In person. From Canada, actually. You should see 'em."
"If I ever go to Buffalo, I promise to take a look," Jake said, seating himself next to her. The bench was short, and he had to sit so that they were right next to each other, their thighs brushing.
"This water tower was for the house that used to be down there," Jake explained, pointing to the open field to the south. "It was taken down a long time ago," he continued, "Again, before I was born. But, it was the house Gramps built for his childhood sweetheart and new bride, my Grandma Betsy. Grams was an amateur astronomer, so Gramps built the water tower with this deck so she could stargaze."
"It's perfect," Heather declared, looking around. "Above the lights from the farm buildings," she noted. "You can just come up here, sit down - lay down, even - look up, and contemplate your place in the universe." Heather inhaled, her eyes closing for a second, then she caught Jake's eye, smiling. "Your grandfather is a true romantic. What a wonderful present. And, he's kept it up all these years."
Sometimes, Jake felt that all he'd done for the last three months was contemplate his place in the universe, and it hadn't been a wonderful experience. He'd even come up here a few times, hoping to distract himself with the constellations his grandmother had taught him to identify as a child, but to no avail. Still, listening to Heather reminded him exactly why his grandfather had insisted on leaving the water tower up, why they bothered to maintain it. The stargazing deck was a refuge, and Jake found himself determined to give it another try, maybe even asking Heather to join him.
"Grams loved it up here, that's for sure," Jake agreed. "She was still making the climb, at least a few times each year, when I was in high school, ten, twelve years ago?" he guessed. "She and Gramps built more than one telescope together over the years, all too big to haul up here, but she had a commercial one that she used to get me to put in a pack and bring up here for her," he remembered, staring unseeing past Heather.
"So, you grew up here?" she asked.
"Jericho, yes," Jake confirmed. "But we lived in town." He flashed her a grin she couldn't quite classify, and said, "My Dad's the mayor who never wears suits."
Heather nodded, giggling self-consciously. "I figured that out. That he was your father or uncle, anyway."
Jake drummed his finger on the bench, and Heather was surprised to realize that he was nervous, or maybe just uncomfortable with the topic. But, before she could analyze her discovery, he was speaking again. "Yeah, well, Dad's an only child. He's been mayor since I was in Kindergarten or something." He shrugged. "I was out here all the time as a kid, and my brother and I, we had our own room. But I only moved in out here a few months ago. "
He stood up then, moving back to the safety rail. "Ready for the rest?" he asked, looking back at her.
"Sure," she agreed, scrambling to her feet.
"So, everything east of here to that road, is the Green Ranch," Jake explained pointing out the boundary. "Horse barns are there," he continued, gesturing to a row of buildings about a quarter of a mile away. "Like Gramps said, most of the land is rented out, these days. Everything beyond the barns to the road is rented, and everything south of that fence as far as you can see, basically."
"It's a big place," Heather murmured. "Believe me, my whole neighborhood in Buffalo would fit here, no problem."
"There are bigger operations around here. Even if we go back to farming all our land as the leases expire, we still wouldn't be biggest farm in Jericho," Jake told her. "But top five, yeah," he admitted, a hint of pride creeping into his voice. "But, what we're known for is our horses," Jake told her. "You wanna meet 'em?"
Heather smiled, nodding, "Love to."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Thursday, September 21, twelve hours after the bombs
"Okay, I'm sorry, it's crazy around here," April entered the exam room talking. "Another car load of people just came in. Another accident, this time northeast of town, nothing too bad, but I had to stitch up a three year old, screaming bloody murder the entire time." She stopped, took a deep breath, and looked around the room, finally meeting Heather's amused gaze with a quizzical look of her own. "What happened to Jake?"
"Gail showed up with clothes for us - thank God - and he was getting antsy." Heather shrugged, "He went for a walk. I really didn't think he needed to be here for this part."
April laughed. "Yeah, Jake didn't seem to be enjoying that hospital gown."
"He put up with it pretty well," Heather defended her husband. "But, it's good to be in my own clothes again. Clean clothes," she clarified, shaking her head. "If you happen to come across what I was wearing yesterday, just burn them. They all smell like puke."
April found Heather's chart on the back of the door, and then moved to the side of the exam table Heather was sitting on, re-reading her notes from the previous evening. She dropped the chart on a rolling tray, and faced her sister-in-law. "And, you only threw up twice?"
"Yes," Heather confirmed.
"And, what's your pain level now? One being that you don't even notice, ten being excruciating."
"I don't know," Heather answered. "A four."
April shook her head. "Liar," she accused lightly, reaching into her coat pocket. "Here." She handed Heather a pill bottle. "It's plain old regular strength. Same thing I gave you last night." She turned the bottle around so that she could see the dosing instructions, and then showed them to Heather. "Look here," April ordered. "It says, 'consult a health professional'. I am a health professional, this is a consultation, and I'm saying that you need to have two more."
Heather sighed. "Maybe a six," she admitted. She held out her hand and then pulled it back. "Would you have really forced me to take something stronger last night?"
"No, but Jake might've." April replied. "I'm not above using every tool in my toolbox," she added, unapologetic.
"So, if I take this, am I discharged?" Heather asked, shaking her head.
Yeah," April agreed. "I just want to check your cast once more, and get you a boot so you can walk on it." She shook the bottle in Heather's face, the pills rattling. "Do we have a deal?"
Heather nodded. April handed her the bottle. "Here. I'll go find you a bottle of water, and that boot, and you'll be ready to leave when Jake gets back from his walk."
"What the heck is that?" Heather asked, pointing at the black contraption that April was carrying when she returned a few minutes later.
"I scored. This is better than a regular boot," April declared, handing Heather the promised bottled water. "Take the Tylenol," she ordered, gently lifting Heather's leg. She slipped the black brace over Heather's foot and under her leg, and began strapping it into place. "You'll be fairly mobile on it," April assured, tugging the last Velcro band into place. "How do you feel?"
Heather stared down at her leg for a moment. Suddenly, her broken leg seemed real; the brace made her look tough, certainly tougher than she felt at the moment. "I feel like a bad ass," she joked.
Out of the corner of her eye, Heather saw Jake come through the door, obviously in a hurry. "April," he demanded. "Does the clinic have a fallout shelter?"
Heather and April both started at his question. "Yes," April answered quickly. "What's going on?"
"It's bad," Jake muttered. "Cmon."
He was already out the door. April looked at Heather. "Go. I'm good," Heather said. "Go."
Heather had just managed to climb down from the exam table, and was starting to test her walking cast when her mother-in-law appeared in the doorway. "April asked me to find you some crutches," Gail greeted.
"Oh, thanks!" Heather exclaimed, holding onto the edge of the exam table. "I was trying to figure out how long I was going to be stuck here." She lifted her broken leg a few inches. "I'm pretty sure I'm not supposed to put my full weight on this."
"You're not," Gail confirmed, holding a pair of crutches out for her. Heather fitted them under her arms, and took a practice step forward. "You've done this before," Gail observed.
"I've sprained my share of ankles," Heather admitted. "But this is my first broken anything. It's not the same, though. Do you think I can get away with just one?" she asked. "As long as I keep some of the weight off the cast?"
Gail reached for one of the crutches. "Give it a try."
Heather, using just the one crutch, walked in a small circle, gaining confidence with her choice. "I'm going to go with it," she decided.
"Where were Jake and April going?"
The question hung in the air between them, and it was a moment before Heather could answer. "To the fallout shelter," she said finally, sighing. "I don't know what's happening, but it's bad. Jake said it's bad. Guess it was silly to hope that everything that was going to happen had happened already."
"Not silly to hope," her mother-in law assured her, "Just unrealistic to expect."
"Yeah," Heather agreed softly. She pursed her lips, her forehead wrinkling as she decided how to put into words what she was feeling. "Is it weird that I'm not worried?" Heather asked. "I mean, I know I haven't really accepted it. I saw it happen, but it hasn't sunk in, and -"
Gail reached out, taking Heather's hand and squeezing it. "It's okay, honey. We're all, if we're honest, still walking around in a daze."
"But, it's not only that," Heather protested, shaking her head. "I'm - Not being worried is one thing, but I'm - I think I'm actually happy." Her eyes filled with tears, belying her claim. "He's here, he's home, and I'm just so grateful, I don't - I can't make myself care about the rest." She sighed, covering her mouth with her free hand, blinking hard. "At least - at least we're together, you know?" Heather's voice cracked softly, and she stopped to clear her throat. "I don't know why I'm crying, I'm not making any sense."
"Yes you are," Gail comforted, pulling Heather into an awkward hug. Heather dropped her crutch, and they both watched it fall, laughing together self-consciously. "You okay?" Gail asked, helping Heather find her balance on one foot, before retrieving the crutch for her. "I understand exactly what you're saying. If I didn't know where he was, if I didn't know this morning where all the people I love best are, if I couldn't browbeat you all into coming to dinner if that's what I decided to do, I'd be a basket case." Gail looked at her daughter-in-law, her expression full of compassion. "You're allowed to be happy that Jake's home."
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Heather repeated, starting to weep. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you he was in Iraq," she apologized, allowing Gail to lead her to a chair. "It was stupid, I was being childish, and I should have told you," she sniffled, dropping into the seat. "I'm sorry."
Gail knelt next to Heather. "I have always worried about my boys whether I knew what they were doing or not, whether I knew where they were or not," she explained. "And, I'm sure I could have worried harder if I'd known he was in Iraq, but I was still worrying anyway." She paused, folding her hands together against her mouth. "It's just that we could have worried together, honey, that's all," Gail sighed. "You didn't have to carry that burden all by yourself, and I don't understand why you thought you had to."
"It was just something that happened," Heather began after a moment's silence. "Two years ago - two and half, really," she corrected herself, taking a shaky breath. "It was a couple of months after Gramps died, and it was Lent, so I was planning to go into Rogue River on Saturday for my quarterly trip to confession."
Gail nodded. Heather had been raised Catholic, and although she joked that she was slowly turning Protestant like the rest of Jericho, she also had what she called her 'Catholic guilt fits', which could only be assuaged by a trip to the Catholic Church in Rogue River, ninety miles away, for mass, communion and confession.
"Anyway, Jake had just gotten home that Thursday, I think, and he decided to come with me, said we could just spend the day there," Heather continued. "So we went to Rogue River, and I went to church, and we went shopping - the bookstore, Costco - and finally out to dinner at Harrison's. Jake had been spending a lot of time in South America right then, and he just really wanted some chicken fried steak," she chuckled, remembering how she'd teased him for insisting on the most expensive steak house in the area, and then ordering chicken fried steak instead of the filet mignon.
"I would have made him chicken fried steak," Gail muttered, shaking her head. "You didn't have to go to Harrison's."
Heather smiled at her mother-in-law's predictable response. "Well, it was nice to go out on an actual dinner date for once," she offered, tucking her hair back behind her ears. "The restaurant was packed, typical Saturday night, and I guess the manager started running the charge cards to free the wait staff up." Heather paused to put her thoughts in order. "The name 'Johnston Green' doesn't exactly lend itself to anonymity if you're in northwest Kansas," she said slowly, her eyes locking with Gail's. "The manager recognized Jake's credit card."
"Oh." Gail couldn't hide her surprise. It was true that she had named her son after his father, but he'd always been called 'Jake', since about twenty minutes after birth. When he and Heather had married, they'd exchanged vows simply as 'Heather' and 'Jake', avoiding anything more formal. Although she'd never really thought about it, Gail had always assumed that somewhere along the way he'd quietly given up his first name. It was a shock to know that he hadn't.
Heather continued. "The manager came to our table. He'd gone to high school in Jericho, he knew who Jake was." She squinted, trying to remember exactly how events had played out. "Jake didn't know him, I'm pretty sure, but he covered, and besides the manager was happy to do most of the talking. He started asking about Jake's job and his traveling - where he'd been, how often he was gone - stuff like that." Heather sighed. "It was weird, and it made us both uncomfortable, but the guy just kept talking."
"Jake signed the credit card slip, and started in about how we had a long drive home still, and then the manger says something like 'don't I know it!' Turned out he'd been up to Jericho a few weeks earlier to see his cousin, and he was at Bailey's one night, which is where he'd heard about Jake. I mean, it turned out to be innocent enough, I suppose, but it still scared me. It scared us both. Most people in Jericho, if they know Jake, they know who he works for. It's not really a secret, but it's also not something we broadcast. And, if he's not home -"
"You're alone at the ranch with the world's most friendly guard dog," Gail completed for Heather. She stood up, shaking her head, and taking a few steps to the sink in the room. She pulled two paper towels from the dispenser and dampened them, then held them out to Heather. "You look like you've been crying, honey," she said.
Heather accepted the paper toweling, scrubbing her face with it. "Thanks," she murmured, looking up at Gail. "Is that better?"
Gail nodded. "So, when this all happened, that's when Jake had the ridiculously complicated and fancy security system installed out at the ranch," she deduced. Gail observed Heather carefully. "Why didn't he just explain? Johnston was so mad. He couldn't believe that Jake would waste all that money, but if he would've just explained why."
Heather didn't say anything, instead busying herself with re-folding the wet paper towel into a small, thick square. Heather genuinely liked her father-in-law, and they got along well, by and large. Jake's relationship with his father was infinitely more complicated, and although she was sure they loved each other, they often clashed. Jake, she knew, had felt that the money belonged to him, and that it hadn't occurred to him to consult with his father before having the security system installed. Johnston, she knew, had never been happy with his own father's decision to change the terms of Jake's trust fund when they had married. But Gramps had been old-fashioned that way; while he'd appointed Johnston to be the administrator of his sons' trust funds when they were children and then single young men, Gramps had believed that marriage was a sign of maturity that warranted allowing Eric and Jake to take control of their own inheritance.
"It was his money," Heather argued, groaning in frustration. "He didn't think he had to explain what he was doing with his own money. It isn't like he's running through it," she reminded.
Jake was the first person she'd ever known who had a trust fund, and she'd teased him about that, when he'd told her, after their engagement. She'd jokingly referred to him as 'rich boy' and asked if he wanted a prenuptial agreement. Jake had put up with her mocking, recognizing it for what it was: a sudden bout of insecurity resulting from her realization that their financial circumstances were very different. Heather had realized early on that the Greens as a family were wealthy, though they were careful not to flaunt it. But, she hadn't realized that Jake was personally well-off until he'd told her.
"That's the only time he's ever touched the principal," Heather told her mother-in-law. "Maybe he should have explained - there certainly wasn't any reason not to - but it was also his decision alone to make."
"It was," Gail conceded with a sigh. "It would just be so much easier if they would talk to each other, sometimes."
Heather laughed humorlessly. "Well, on that, I couldn't agree with you more." There was a somewhat uncomfortable moment of silence between them, and then Heather began to climb to her feet once more. "Look, I'm going to go see if I can find the fallout shelter, find -"
"Who was it?" Gail interrupted. "At Bailey's," she clarified, "Talking about Jake? You can't tell me Jake didn't find out."
Heather bit her lip, not really wanting to answer. She and Gail stared at each other for a moment, and finally she gave in. "Eric," she said simply, shrugging. "That's why I left it up to Jake to tell you what he wanted you to know. He could tell you not to tell Eric, but that's not something I wanted to get into. It was easier to leave it up to him."
Gail started to respond, but whatever she was going to say was cut off by a sharp knock on the door, followed by Jake's entrance two seconds later.
"Hey," he greeted. He was obviously wound up with nervous energy, unable to keep still, despite his injured leg which still required him to favor it. "Look, there's a storm headed our way. From Denver."
"Crap!" Heather exclaimed. "That'll bring the fallout from - the fallout right down on top of us."
"Exactly," Jake intoned, exhaling loudly. "Look, there are two public fallout shelters in Jericho, one here, one at town hall. Dad's divided the town down the middle, and everyone north of Main Street who doesn't have a basement or storm cellar is being sent here."
"We need to go home then," Heather said. "The horses, and the chickens and Baron -"
"Tony and Eddie were there when I went out to pick up clothes," Gail interjected, naming the de facto Green Ranch foreman and his son. Technically, Gail ran the horse business, but Tony did most of the day-to-day work.
"I already talked to Tony on the radio," Jake told them. "He's taking care of the animals, making sure the well's covered - all of that. They're moving the chickens into the garage and then he and Eddie are going to hole up with Baron in the storm cellar out there." Jake took a deep breath. "The problem is the ventilator for the fallout shelter isn't working here. We've got an hour, maybe ten minutes more to get it up and running." He looked at Heather. "I'm gonna need your help, babe. Are you feeling up to it?"
She nodded. "April said I could be discharged. I'm moving a little slower than normal," Heather added, demonstrating by taking a couple of steps in Jake's direction, "But I'm in. I just need to use the bathroom, and then I'll come down." She waited a second then asked, "Where is it? I don't think I've ever been in the basement here."
"End of this hallway," he directed, pointing to the right, "There's a stairwell. Go down to the bottom, and then turn left in the hallway. It winds around a bit, but eventually you're there. Sorry the elevator isn't working, but there's no way to run that thing off the generator."
Heather was halfway out the door. "My luck, I'd get stuck in the elevator today. The stairs are fine," she assured, flashing him a quick smile. "I'll meet you down there."
Jake turned back to face his mother. "Is your car here?" he asked, and when she answered 'yes', he grabbed her hand, pulling her out of the exam room. "Good," he said, leading her down the hallway. "You need to go to town hall."
"Jake, I'm not going anywhere," Gail protested, stopping.
"Mom. Mom!" he repeated, annoyance, fear and fatigue flickering in his expression. "I'm not going to argue with you. You're going to the other shelter. Now," he told her.
"I'm staying!" Gail protested, trying to pull away, but Jake had a death grip on her hand.
"Mom!" Jake's frustration was evident in his tone, and he was almost yelling at her. "I don't even know if we can fix it," he muttered just loud enough so she could hear. The last thing he wanted to do was panic the rest of the people at the clinic. "And, I can't concentrate knowing you're here! I don't want Heather here," Jake admitted in a harsh whisper. "But I need her help. Do not make me have to worry about the both of you. Just go!" he ordered. "Please. We'll be fine. We'll be fine."
She started to cry, and Jake couldn't help but mentally kick himself. He hated making women cry in general, his mother and wife in particular. "Promise me you'll come to the other shelter after it's fixed," she demanded. "Promise me!"
"I promise, Mom," he murmured.
She pulled him into a quick hug, standing on tip toe in order to whisper into his ear. "I want my family with me."
"Okay," he answered softly, kissing the top of her head. "Go. Please go."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Friday, October 12, five years before the bombs
"Good night, Mr. Green," Heather said one last time, shaking the older man's hand. "Thank you so much for dinner, and I will see you on Thursday." She smiled widely, obviously delighted. "I am so excited to have you come speak to my class, and I know the kids will be excited, too."
As dinner with Jake and his grandfather had demonstrated, EJ Green was a master story teller, who knew literally everything there was to know about the history of Jericho. The Green family had helped found the town, he'd reminded her proudly, and the Greens had had almost a constant hand in governing Jericho. Johnston Green was the third Green to be mayor, and the Greens had also served on the town council and the school board. Eventually, some of his stories had gotten off topic, and he'd finished up with a tale of his misadventure in Paris, circa November 1944, that had had both Heather and Jake in stitches.
"I'm surprised Grams didn't kill you," Jake had exclaimed, laughing and wiping his eyes.
"Well, I was never dumb enough to tell Betsy about all that," Grandpa Green had assured them. "But it was one of the reasons I insisted that she marry me practically the minute I stepped off that train. I figured if she ever found out, she could be mad at me, but she couldn't break off our engagement if we were already hitched." He had winked at Heather then. "I suppose that's one story I shouldn't share with your students?"
"The rest are fine," Heather had allowed, still giggling. "Just, please, not that one. I don't need any more PTA members coming after me."
Grandpa Green also had a collection of memorabilia, perfectly preserved and well catalogued, that Heather was sure would make the head of the county historical society absolutely jealous. He and Jake had agreed to haul large chunks of the collection into the school each week on Thursdays for a month so that Grandpa Green could make three presentations on local history, and one on the geology and geography of the area. Heather was in heaven. Then, to top it all off, Grandpa Green had offered to host a picnic at the Green Ranch for her class in the spring. He and Heather had already come up with a list of ten science-related activities they could put on at the ranch in order to meet the educational requirement of the field trip.
Heather truly couldn't believe her luck. She'd left the school that day feeling, if not like a failure, then definitely like it might not be worth constantly challenging the powers that be at Jericho Elementary. But now, with the support of EJ and Jake Green - truly the first family of Jericho - Heather felt ready to do battle. She knew there was no way anyone could object to the lessons she had planned. She couldn't wait to fill Mrs. McVeigh in on Monday.
Grandpa Green smiled at Heather, holding her hand clasped between both of his. "It is my pleasure, Miss Lisinski," he declared.
Jake returned to the front hall then, carrying Heather's backpack, which he'd retrieved from the guest room. Heather knew better at this point than to try and take her bag from Jake; she could tell that he intended to see her out to her car. She waited while he put on his coat, and then opened the door for her.
"See you in a bit, Gramps," he called back, pulling the door closed be hind him.
"Going somewhere?" Heather asked, glancing at him sideways.
"Yes," Jake answered. "I'm going to follow you home," he told her. "Just follow you home to make sure you get there," he added when, in the dim light of the front porch, he saw her eyebrows shoot up in surprise.
Heather's hands went to her hips. "I'm not letting you follow me home," she proclaimed.
"Let me?" he echoed, a smirk creeping onto his face.
She shook her head, chuckling soundlessly. Seconds passed before she would look at him again, and when she did, he could see in her eyes just how confused she was by the connection that had sprung up, practically full grown, between them. Jake was relieved; he felt just as confused.
"I'm just not used to this much chivalry," Heather admitted finally. "I'm not really used to any amount of chivalry, actually."
"Hey, this is Jericho," he shrugged. "We can be a little old fashioned, but sometimes that's a good thing." Jake sighed. "Look, Route 9 is deserted during the day, and it's nearly ten. If something happens with your tire, you'll be stranded out there all night."
Heather could see his point, but she wasn't ready to give in. "I do have a cell phone," she told him. "I can call for help. For that matter, I can call you when I get home to let you know I'm fine, if you want," she offered. "What if you follow me home, and that goes fine, but then you're driving back and your tire blows out?"
"Heather," Jake murmured, ignoring her hypothetical. "Let me follow you home," he requested.
The husky quality if his voice sent a shiver up Heather's spine, and for a moment she was prepared to let him do much more than simply follow her home. She closed her eyes, giving herself a few more seconds to think. "Why?" she repeated.
"Because I want to," Jake said, suddenly feeling anxious. He knew it was an odd impulse on his part, and now he was turning it into a test. He should have just agreed to the phone call, rather than pushing the issue, but Jake was reluctant for the evening to be over. This was the only way he knew how to prolong it, even if by just a few seconds, a few words exchanged, while he walked her to her door. "C'mon," he prodded.
"Okay," she conceded finally. They had both been holding their breath, and they exhaled in unison. Heather laughed at that, Jake joining her. "Okay, she said again. "Let's go."
Jake walked her to her car, finally returning her backpack. Heather threw it onto the passenger seat, and then climbed into the car herself. Jake stopped her from pulling the door closed. "Where do you live? Which street?"
Heather emitted a groan, which became a giggle. She looked up at him, blushing faintly in the moonlight. "Green Street," she confessed. "Which is no doubt named after your great-grandfather."
Jake nodded, chuckling along with Heather. "It is," he acknowledged. "When I was a kid I used to wonder where Red Street or Blue Street was. Eventually I figured it out," he told her, laughing at himself. "All set?" he asked, moving to close her door for her.
"Wait!" Heather interrupted. She looked up at him, smiling teasingly. "When your family plays Clue, who gets to be Mr. Green?"
Jake snorted, but couldn't stop himself from grinning. "I don't think we've ever all played. Just my mom, my brother and me, when we were kids, but that's it. And," he added, "She wouldn't let either of us be Mr. Green."
"Just checking," she laughed, allowing him to close her door. Heather waited, watching in the rear view mirror as Jake walked to his own car, parked behind hers, and then climbed in. She turned on her lights, and started the engine. "Okay," she told herself, easing the car into gear, "You can do this."
The drive from the Green Ranch to town, and then to Heather's house on Green Street took little more than ten minutes, but it seemed like an eternity to the occupants of the two cars making the trip that night. Both Heather and Jake replayed the afternoon's and evening's events in their heads as the drove, both mostly on autopilot. It has been an exhilarating experience for them both, intense and awkward at points, but wonderful, too. They both feared, just a little bit, that things would be suddenly changed when they got to town.
Jake pulled his car into the driveway behind Heather and climbed out, but not before Heather was out of her own car. Apparently he looked disappointed enough that Heather apologized. "Sorry, I guess I should have let you be chivalrous, and help me out, huh?"
"It's okay," Jake sighed, his palms suddenly damp. "But now you have to give me your backpack," he joked. "Just 'til the front door."
Heather held the bag out to him, smiling. "If you insist."
They walked to the front door without speaking, and Jake waited while Heather fished her keys out of her purse. He looked around, admiring the small, but well-maintained home. "Nice house," he complimented.
"Thanks," said Heather, finding her key. She looked up at him, catching his eye, in the soft glow of her porch light. "I'm just renting it," she explained, "But I certainly never expected to be in a house, all by myself, as a first year teacher."
"That's one good thing about Jericho," Jake offered. "The PTA may be run by evil ex-babysitters, but housing prices are low."
"Exactly," Heather agreed, opening her front door. She stepped halfway in, and turned around to face him. He handed her backpack to her. "Thanks, Jake," she smiled. "For everything. My tire, the tour, dinner -"
Jake took a step forward, and for a moment she thought he was going to kiss her, but at the last second he seemed to lose his nerve, and all he did was reach out to tuck a strand of her hair behind her ear. As much as Heather had been anticipating a kiss, this gesture struck her as almost as intimate, and it was a number of seconds before she remembered to breathe again.
"You're welcome," he said hoarsely, his hand dropping from her face to capture her own hand. "Good night, Heather," he added, squeezing her fingers and watching her carefully for a reaction. She looked dazed. "I'll see you soon. Thursday."
"Thursday," she echoed. "Maybe before. It's a small town," she reminded. "Good night, Jake." With that, she took another step back into the house, and allowed the door to close.
Jake waited, listening for the sound of lock tumblers moving into place, and then turned back toward his car. 'Maybe before,' she'd said. Suddenly, Jake knew he'd be spending a lot more time in Jericho this week, hoping to run into Heather.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Thursday, September 21, thirteen hours after the bombs
As much as Heather didn't like to admit it, even to herself, walking with even one crutch was hard, and she was already sore, and a little bit tired, after climbing down the stairs and then winding her way through the labyrinthine basement to the fallout shelter. She paused outside for a second, working to put her game face on. She opened the door, and walked in.
The room was chaos. Two men were working to clear all of the junk that had accumulated over the years, unwanted, in the space. Jake and another man she didn't recognize were fighting with the uncooperative ventilation system. She stepped farther into the room, catching Jake's eye. "Where can I pitch in?" she asked.
He abandoned his task for a moment, walking forward to meet her. "How about stripping wires?"
"I can do that in my sleep," she bragged, eliciting a fleeting smile from her husband. She took a few steps toward the ventilator unit, assessing it in a glance. It was bad.
"All right, great," Jake agreed. He was already moving back to work. They were losing time they didn't have. "Check the fan belt," he told her. "I think it's frayed."
"Well then, I think you may want to get another one, Jake," Heather told him, examining the belt more closely. "Any mid-century American car would be a good match." She moved around the unit, continuing to evaluate its condition. "And check the brushers," she ordered. "We don't want the motor to seize up."
"Okay, all right," Jake acknowledged, standing. "You take over," he directed, handing her the screw driver he'd been using. "I think I'm man enough," he continued, his voice dropping low enough that she was the only one in the room who could hear him, "To admit that my wife is a better mechanic than me." Jake concluded by pressing a kiss to Heather's forehead. "I'll look for the fan belt," he told her, starting to step away.
Heather stopped Jake, pulling him back to her. She kissed him quickly, a mere peck on the mouth, and then let go of his shirt. "Now you can go," she told him. Grinning at her through his obvious anxiety, Jake nodded, and left the shelter.
Still smiling, Heather turned back to the task at hand, addressing the grizzled assistant Jake had been working with. "Excuse me, sir," she told him. "You're doing that wrong."
Heather and the poor excuse for a repairman that Jake had left her with had been working together, inharmoniously, for nearly fifteen minutes. Carl, the repairman, was on the maintenance crew at the clinic, which did nothing to recommend him to Heather. She couldn't believe that the ventilator unit in the shelter had been allowed to get into its current, extremely sad state. There was also the very annoying fact that no matter how many times she told Carl her name, he refused to remember it. Now they were having their, by Heather's count, sixth argument.
"I'm telling you, they need to be replaced," Heather insisted, contemplating, for just a second, smacking him with her crutch.
Carl The Obnoxious would have none of it. "Listen, girlie," he grumbled, glaring at her, "Don't tell me what to do."
Heather squared her shoulders, and raised her voice, deciding to treat Carl as she would any recalcitrant eight year old. "Please don't argue with me," she said. "The brushers are shot," she insisted, gesturing at the open panel to make her point. "It's revving too high!"
But, it was too late. The panel exploded, showering them in sparks. Joe ducked out of the way. 'Coward,' Heather thought, even as she tried, futilely, to reach the ventilator unit, to salvage something.
"Turn 'em off!" Jake was suddenly beside her, working with her, trying to disable what was left of the ventilator's motor. They got it turned off, but they both knew as soon as the sparks stopped flying, and they had a good look at what was left, that there was no way the ventilator was going to be repaired today, let alone in the next half hour.
"Damn it!" Jake swore, smacking the side of the ventilator once, hard, as if that might miraculously fix it. "Crap." He rubbed the side of his now smarting hand across his mouth, and took a deep breath.
Heather watched Jake closely, recognizing defeat and frustration in his posture. She moved toward him, hoping to at least offer him the solidarity of her presence, the comfort of her hand momentarily on his. But, she was interrupted before she could reach him.
"Jake!" April called from the doorway. "Everyone's ready. What do we do now?"
Exasperated, Jake shouted, "Don't let them in here!"
"The rain's going to be here soon!" April yelled back, obviously aggravated. "People are getting scared! Do we have air or not?" she demanded.
At that moment Jake almost seemed to collapse, hunching over, hugging himself. Heather took the last few steps toward him, dropping her crutch in order to put her arm around him, offering whatever support he was willing to accept. He sighed, and looked up at April. "If we seal them up in here, they're going to die."
* * * * *
Heather rested against the side of a school bus - not the same one she'd been on less than twelve hours previously, thankfully - watching the activity around her, watching her husband. After a quick consultation between April, Jake and a few other clinic staff members, it had been determined that that their only option was to evacuate everyone at the clinic to town hall. Now, Jake and April were working furiously to make that happen.
Jake was on the radio, trying to raise his father. "Dad? Dad, can you hear me?" Heather heard him shout into the handheld unit. The radio crackled in response, but she couldn't make out what was being said on the other end. Jake was speaking again. "Our shelter's no good," he yelled. "I'm bringing these people to town hall."
Jake continued to argue with whoever was at the other end of the radio, and finally April pulled the handset away from Jake. "Eric!" she shouted. "We've got two hundred people here! Some of them need medical attention. Handle it!" she ordered.
Eric responded, but both April and Jake ignored his protests. "I don't have time," April barked into the microphone. "We're coming!" She turned off the volume and shoved the radio back at Jake. "Sorry," she said, sounding anything but, "My husband needs a kick sometimes."
"You don't have to apologize to me," Jake responded, a ghost of a smile touching his lips. They stepped toward the school bus, appropriated from the town corporation yard across the street, and he waited for April to climb aboard. Turning, he addressed Heather, holding out his hand to her. "How're you doing?" he asked. She'd been understandably upset after the ventilator had blown up, and by the time they had gotten outside she'd looked positively ill. April had ordered her to rest in the fresh air - if there was such a thing anymore - and to take deep breaths. She didn't look much better to Jake.
"I'm fine. Promise," she said, a little too brightly. He helped her board the school bus, both of them groaning from their injuries as they climbed the steps, then watched while she found a seat a few rows back, next to April. He slid into the driver's seat and started the bus, pulling out of the clinic parking lot onto Park Street. Another school bus and three ambulances followed. Jake took a deep breath, praying this would work.
Heather ignored everyone sitting around her. She had experienced a moment of vertigo while they were evacuating the clinic, and she was still somewhat dizzy. She held onto the back of the seat in front of her, and concentrated on the back of Jake's head. She saw him glance up, and her eyes moved too, catching his for a second in the mirror mounted at the front of the bus.
"Now you're eye-canoodling!" April teased softly, leaning against Heather's shoulder for a second. "You two are incorrigible."
The convoy arrived at town hall in just over five minutes. April slipped passed Heather, and jogged to the front of the bus to be the first one off. Jake stood, and was just about to start directing his passengers to disembark when his brother came running out of the building.
"Whoa, whoa, people!" Eric yelled. "Please don't get off the bus," he ordered, stepping up into the bus to address the frightened passengers. He looked at Jake. "We can't take any more people."
They both stepped off the bus, and Jake grabbed his brother by the shirt. "Eric! What the hell are you doing?"
"They can't come in here, Jake," Eric insisted, pulling out of Jake's grasp.
Jake couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Whaddaya mean they can't come in?" he demanded.
"We're packed!" Eric insisted, holding up his hands in a 'what do you want me to do?' gesture.
Jake stared at his brother. "What?" he demanded. "I've got a whole bus full of people here that need shelter." He waved angrily at the open door to make his point, and noticed that Heather had moved into the stairwell to listen in.
April came back into hearing range then. She and a paramedic were carefully moving an Isolette containing Baby Emma, Jericho Medical's most critical patient. "You're really going to turn away all these people, Eric?" she protested when he moved to block their way. "You're going to turn away your wife?" she continued, clearly incensed.
Gray Anderson appeared behind Eric. "We let everybody in, we'll all suffocate," he said.
April ignored him, focusing all of her angry energy on her husband. "Eric, there are really sick people here, and the storm is coming," she reminded, glaring at him.
Eric sighed. "Okay, we can take ten," he conceded. "And," he told April, "I saved a spot for you."
Jake and April exchanged a quick look. They both knew Eric well enough to realize that he wasn't going to budge anymore. Giving in, Jake announced, "All right, the ten most critical. Fast."
April nodded in agreement, and the clinic staff went into action, pulling patients off the ambulances that were parked haphazardly around the square.
"Gray!" Jake called out, spotting the other man as he started to head back into town hall. "Gray! Your salt mine," he questioned, "How many people will it hold?"
Gray shrugged. "About as many as you want, but I don't think it's the -"
"It has a ventilation system, right?" Jake questioned, cutting him off.
"Yeah," Gray conceded. "And water."
"All right," Jake started. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his mother approaching. "It's the best option we have right now." She pushed passed him and Gray. "All right?" he asked, looking between Gray and Shep, the mine foreman. Jake turned without waiting for a response. "Mom!"
Gail was standing on the step of the bus, talking to Heather and clutching her hand. "He's not on the bus," Heather soothed. "No one's on the bus that didn't come from the clinic."
"He told me he was going to the church!" Gail wailed, a note of hysteria creeping into her voice.
"Gail, the people from the church got back twenty minutes ago," Gray called out.
Gail let go of Heather's hand, and jumped down off the bus step. "Eric!" she cried, looking for her son.
Eric threw up his hands. "Mom, we'll find Dad," he promised her. "Jake," he said, turning to his brother, "Take your people to the mine. Leave us ten."
April jogged back up to the group. "You've got ten," she told Eric, still sounding a little annoyed. "And me, if you still have room. They could use their doctor, after all."
"I'll go with you, Jake," Shep offered, clearing his throat. "After twenty-seven years, no one knows that mine the way I do." He looked at April. "Guess you can fit eleven people now."
April nodded. "Thanks, Shep." She turned to a nurse, standing behind her. "Get Clara Richards," she ordered.
"Yeah, make it twelve," Gray sighed, shoving his hands in his pockets. "It's my place. I should be there."
"Okay, April," Jake prompted. "Who now?"
She bit her lip, contemplating the list of patients from the clinic. They had been treating a steady influx of people for the past fifteen hours, but most of them just needed first aid and some reassurance. "Heather," she declared finally, surprising the group.
"What?" Heather yelped. "Not me, April. I was discharged, I'm fine. You have other patients."
"It's not just your leg," April argued, turning to face her sister-in-law. "You've been sick all morning."
"Not all morning," Heather returned, glaring. "I just got a little light headed. I'm fine now."
"Heather," Jake started, "Maybe -"
"No," Heather interrupted, crossing her arms. "Last night you said I was stuck with you. Well, you're stuck with me, too. We stick together, Jake."
He nodded, giving in. "Someone else, April. Quick," Jake commanded. He looked back at Shep and Gray, "Let's go."
Jake half-stepped, half-jumped back onto the bus, wincing as his full weight came down on his injured leg. He was now sharing the step with Heather, who offered him an encouraging smile, taking his hand into her own. "Hey, we're going to be okay," she told him, their eyes locking.
He squeezed her hand, sighing. "I hope so."
The ride to the salt mine, just outside of Jericho, was even wilder than the ride from the clinic to town hall. Shep led the two buses, not bothering to obey the speed limit, or worry about things like stop signs and speed bumps. There were no other vehicles out in Jericho; everyone else had taken shelter. As they neared the entrance to the mine, Jake started blasting the horn, and Shep seemed to understand, pulling his truck over to the side of the road. The school bus had built up enough speed to crash through the locked gate, but the impact threw all of the passengers forward. Heather was extremely grateful when Jake brought the bus to a stop, calling out, somewhat breathlessly, "We're here. Everybody off."
He waited next to the bus until Heather shuffled forward, climbing back into the stairwell to help her down. He pulled her along with him for a few steps, but then she stopped him. "Jake, I'm sure there's ten things you need to be doing now." He started to argue, but she cut him off. "Look, I'll get there eventually. You go," she urged. "Just don't close the door before I get there."
"Never gonna happen, babe," he told her, kissing her quickly. In the next instant he was jogging, as best he could on his bad leg, after Gray and Shep.
By the time Heather reached the mine entrance, she found Jake and Shep busy placing dynamite around the mouth of the mine. "Whoa! Whoa!" she heard her husband shout. "Take some of that out, all right?" he demanded of Shep as she limped around the corner. "Seal the entrance, don't cause a cave in."
Heather stopped, appraising the situation. She trusted Jake implicitly, truly with her life, but this didn't look good. She stepped out of the line of people slowly making their way down into the mine, moving closer to where the two men were working. "Where'd you learn to do that?" she asked Jake quietly.
He looked over his shoulder, obviously relieved by her presence. "Knew a guy once," he joked.
"Knew a guy?" Heather questioned.
Jake shrugged, checking one of the charges. "One of my field training instructors," he clarified.
"You've have field training in explosives," Heather said, her tone laced with disbelief. Jake didn't talk about the specifics of his work, but she had once read his job description. There had been no mention of explosives.
"Well, for Melvin, explosives were more of a hobby," Jake admitted. "I didn't have anything to do one weekend, he invited me out."
Heather shook her head, not sure what to think. "Is Melvin still with us?" she asked, only half joking.
Jake's answering smile was grim. "I wasn't me who blew him up." Heather's eyes widened, and Jake shook his head. "Sweetheart, please. Go inside."
"Okay, Jake, how does that look?" Shep interrupted, motioning to the charge he'd finished setting.
Jake watched long enough to see Heather rejoin the line of people moving into mine, and then turned to inspect Shep's efforts. "That's good, that'll do," he said with an approving nod. Jake moved along the scaffold so he could look down the tunnel the evacuees were using to access the mine. "How we comin', Gray?" he called out.
"This is the last of 'em," Gray assured, making room for Heather, who came up beside him.
"I'm almost done here," Shep declared.
"Same here," Jake agreed. In the next instance, the radio he'd abandoned earlier crackled to life, but he couldn't make out what was being said. "What was that?" he demanded. "Did you hear that?" he asked, looking between Shep and Gray. He turned around, trying to get over to the radio. Heather followed Gray forward, and he shook his head at her, but she ignored him. "Everybody be quiet!" he commanded.
The four of them listened closely to the transmission, barely able to make it out. What he did hear made Jake's blood run cold. Emily Sullivan, his high school girlfriend, was at the Richmond Ranch - the home of his best friend, Stanley, and Stanley's teenaged sister, Bonnie - and there were men with guns. Jake remembered the empty prison bus he'd passed on the road the night before. This could not be good.
The transmission ended abruptly, and Jake grabbed the radio, trying to raise Emily. "Emily!" he shouted into the unit, "Emily! Can you hear me?" There was no response. Damn it!" he swore.
"Bonnie and Stanley," Heather murmured. "They could be dead."
Jake shook his head. He couldn't let this happen. "Shep, give me your keys," he demanded.
"Jake, it's going to start raining any minute now," Shep protested.
"Give me your keys," Jake insisted, holding out his hand. "I can make it."
Shep fished the keys to his truck out of his pocket. "Okay, okay."
"You're outta your mind," Gray muttered. "Heather, you might want to talk some sense into your husband," he suggested.
Jake looked at his wife, their gazes locking. For a split second, he considered taking her with him, but then he remembered Emily's chilling report. He couldn't risk her life when there were men with guns, and radioactive poison about to pour down on them. He grabbed her hand, and helped her walk a few feet away. Gray and Shep stepped back, offering them a modicum of privacy.
"If you tell me no, I won't go," he told her.
Heather bit her lip, her eyes filling with tears. "That's not fair," she accused hoarsely. "They're our friends," she added, pressing her fist against her mouth, obviously conflicted. "Even Emily."
"Babe, we have to decide now," he prompted her, rattling the keys Shep had given him. "There isn't much time." Jake sighed. "I should have made you stay at town hall."
"Made me?" Heather demanded, wiping her eyes. "I don't think so." She took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. "Go," she said finally. "Help them. But make sure you come back."
Jake pulled her into his arms, hugging her fiercely. He kissed her, and then cupped the back of her head, holding it so his mouth was next to her ear. "You get down in that mine, and you go as far in as you can," he whispered. "You hug the back wall."
"Jake -" Heather started to object, but he cut her off.
"For once in your life, for me, be selfish," he told her. "Please." He felt Heather nodding, and he pressed a last kiss to the side of her head. "I love you." Jake let go of her, carefully pulling loose of the grasp she had on him.
"Gray," he addressed the other man, "Get everybody down there, all right?" Jake reached for Heather's hand, pulling her along with him, unmindful of her broken leg or the crutch she was using. "Get her down there."
Heather watched as Jake silently collected a detonator and coil of fuse wire from Shep, and started to jog out of the mine. Gray let go of her arm and followed. It was only when they were both out of sight that she let herself burst into tears.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *