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Erin, are you awake?"
It was only four words, yet the man's accent was vaguely familiar.
"Yes, I am." Erin Gray's heart lurched at the first recognizable voice she'd heard since regaining consciousness in the ICU of Walter Reed hospital.
The thud of footsteps brought him closer.
"I can't open my eyes!" Her cry was not much more than a raspy whisper, excruciating at that.
"It hurts to move, to talk, to breathe. Hurts everywhere!" She'd give in to the panic rising from her gut but even a single wrench would be too painful.
Tight strips of gauze covered her eyes blocking out all light. Her head and shoulders thumped like the blades of a Blackhawk. Bandages weighed her torso down like a lead blanket. She licked sore lips with a dry tongue. Her mouth was desperate for moisture. Her throat raw.
That's right, a nurse had explained something about being on a respirator for almost three weeks.
Three weeks in a medically induced coma!
Accustomed as Erin was to a military cot, the soft contours of a hospital mattress had produced a throbbing low in her back. She was desperate to sit up or roll to one side. But even the smallest voluntary muscle twitch took her breath away, and if she hadn't been told otherwise, Erin would swear she was in a straightjacket.
"Try to take it easy." The kind man gave a gentle pat to her left hand, the only area of her upper body that seemed free of restraints. "It's not as bad as it seems right now and nowhere near as bad as it coulda been. The heat from the truck bomb that hit your convoy in Kirkuk should have blinded you, but you're only dealin' with scorched corneas. The best ophthalmologist in this place says yourhealin' is right on schedule." His words were reassuring.
"Thank you, Lord," she mouthed. Her one and only talent was photography. Without work behind the camera lens, she'd have no work at all. God was good, her life and vision had been spared.
"What about my arm?" She needed the truth. "I can't move my arm." A disability would end her imbedded service in Iraq, her limb just one more casualty of a foreign war. "Will I" she couldn't get the words out the first time "lose it?"
"God was watchin' over you. Any muscle-bound marine would have bled out from that kind of tissue damage, but I hear your commanding officer got you to the medics in time. You're not out of the woods yet, but all signs are positive."
It was critical, but nothing she couldn't overcome.
A plastic straw pressed to her lips and she sipped carefully, then breathed her first sigh of relief since awakening a few hours earlier.
"Thank you " She waited for him to say a name she felt she would recognize.
The surprise caught in her ragged airway.
"Yeah, it's me, Erin. Your bureau chief notified us you'd been critically wounded."
Daniel Stabler was the emergency contact she'd listed on the application when she'd first gone to work for World View News. She would have left the form incomplete but the human resources police had insisted. So her ex-husband's name was the one she'd used to fill in the blank.
"I'm so sorry J.D. troubled you, Daniel," she rasped, thinking she'd give her boss a piece of her mind once she was able to yell again. "He should have known you were only to be contacted in case of a life or death situation."
"Erin, it was life or death. Nobody expected you to make it." He delivered the news in the steady, calm Texas accent she recalled as pure Daniel. "Your lungs shouldn't be workin' after the fumes you inhaled, and there was enough staph in your body to kill a Dallas Cowboy linebacker. The fact that you're here today is nothin' short of miraculous."
She knew a little something about miracles. She'd tried countless times to trap one in the viewfinder of her Nikon, to capture one on film. She was grateful to be alive, and surely God spared her for a purpose. For work she still needed to do in this world.
"So, if I'm back from the brink of death, whatever possessed J.D. to notify you now?" She wheezed out the long sentence.
"He called me weeks ago while you were on the flight to the States. We arrived in Washington the day after you did and we've been here ever since."
She swallowed another sip of water, careful not to choke on the revelation. Why would Daniel come? After the way she'd run out on their marriage he had every reason and every right to stay away, no matter the severity of her circumstances. Maybe he needed something?
The lanky young man she'd married so many years ago stood tall in her mind's eye. He was a portrait of good intentions and Southern manners in worn-out boots. He hadn't seemed much more than a boy but he knew his heart's desire just as well as Erin had known her demons. No man ever wanted a family with a happily-ever-after ending more than Daniel. And he'd been willing to give his best shot at what she'd known for a fact was only a fairy tale.
He'd begged her to marry him and keep the child they hadn't planned. Erin was just a college sophomore when she agreed. She tried to buy into the illusion Daniel spun about a happy family, a foreign concept for an orphaned girl raised in foster care. And after seven more months of pregnancy and twenty-three hours of labor, she gave birth to a daughter.
Three sleepless days and nights into motherhood, Erin lost all ability to distinguish the colicky squalls of her baby from the anguished screams of her childhood memories. She coped in the way she learned from growing up with a raging father in the house. Daniel returned from work to find the tiny infant wailing in her bassinet, while Erin lay curled into the dark confines of their small closet.
"Are you crazy? How could you leave her alone?" Daniel shouted above the baby's cries. He could never understand and Erin couldn't have explained at that age.
So she never tried. She recognized her foolish mistake in believing in his ideals.
She could never be part of a family, never even be comfortable with her own infant. The baby deserved a chance to grow up in a safe home.
So Erin ran like the coward she was.
Lying in the hospital bed now, she conjured up the vision that had assuaged her guilt for sixteen years. Daniel's sinewy arms gently cradling his daughter, his head bent close as he whispered comfort to the tiny life flailing beneath a pale pink blanket.
No, there was no chance the man so determined to have the treasure of his child needed anything from the woman who believed staying as far away as possible was the best thing to do for her daughter.
So, why had Daniel come, and more importantly, why had he stayed so long?
"Did you hear me, Erin?" He touched her hand softly to get her attention.
"Sorry, I guess not. The pain meds have my mind wandering between decades."
"That's a good sign. The doc will be happy to hear you've still got a memory."
She had one but only selectively. Long ago she'd resolved to have dreams of her own, dreams so big there would be no room in her grown-up mind for the unbearable recollections of childhood.
"What time is it?" She needed an anchor, a sense of night and day and of what had transpired in the world while she'd been drifting in nothingness, evidently with Daniel close at her side.
"It's after one. J.D. and Dana should be back up from the cafeteria any minute now."
The name they'd given the baby who'd inherited Erin's tainted genes.
Erin had left Texas to protect the defenseless life she brought into the world. And all these years later against every precaution to prevent it, that life was about to collide with hers, again.
The creak of a door and lighter steps signaled a nurse's approach. Metal bearings whirred as a nearby curtain eased back so the attendant could check the machines that hovered nearby.
Erin felt helpless as a turtle on its back, completely dependent upon someone else for her most basic needs. The room was silent as she waited for the encouraging voice of the ICU nurse. The footsteps stopped to her left but there was no conversation, no efficient activity, no tugging off of surgical tape or changing of bedclothes. Only the mechanical beeping and humming of machines.
She held her breath as her mind conjured up the worst that could happen in her world of blindness. But nothing in her imagination prepared Erin for the reality beside her in the quiet room.
"Is she awake, Daddy?" The soft voice of a teenage girl drifted across the empty space that was suddenly crowded with expectation.
* * *
Daniel gripped the brim of his Texas Ranger Stetson to mask the trembling of his hands. His heart rattled against his ribs like a diamondback warning off an intruder. Nothing in a dozen years of law enforcement had invoked this visceral response, this quaking in his gut. No drug-ring infiltration or arms-dealer confrontation had imbued this feeling. Where dangerous men had failed to shake Daniel's reserve, this woman lying in Walter Reed's critical ICU had succeeded. Daniel Stabler was afraid. Afraid this moment would mark the unraveling of his world.
He held his worries in check, allowing his Dana her first verbal encounter with the mother who'd been a phantom for sixteen years. J.D.'s call had changed everything. Daniel owed his child the one opportunity she had to see her mother alive.
As the days turned to weeks, his daughter insisted she would not leave without Erin. He'd accepted Dana's proclamation without argument. Even agreed with it since things had been grim at first. But he realized now with shame that he'd never trusted God for Erin's healing. In fact, Daniel had done everything he could to prepare Dana for the inevitability of Erin's death. Now that it was clear she would survive, Dana was insistent upon taking her mama back to Houston with them.
"Daddy?" Dana gripped his forearm, stared up with glistening, hazel eyes. His daughter's face was flushed with excitement over an all-consuming dream about to be fulfilled. Under normal circumstances there was little he wouldn't sacrifice to see this welcome change. His often-sulking sixteen-year-old was inclined toward ghoulish makeup and shrouds of black Goth clothing, looking more like she belonged to Ozzy Osbourne than Walker, Texas Ranger.
"Daddy, what if she can't hear me?" Dana pressed a palm to the anxiety in her throat, giving him a glimpse of fingernails polished black and bitten to the quick.
"I hear you." The response from the bed was raspy.
"What?" Dana's head, dotted with short purple spikes of hair, swiveled toward the sound and then back again. "Did she say something?"
"I said I heard you, which is about the only thing I can still do."
Daniel noted the voice grew stronger with each word. It was time for the introductions he'd never expected or intended to make. He would need the wisdom of Solomon to navigate this situation if it came close to what Dana envisioned.
"Erin, this precious girl is Dana Marie, our daughter." He gave his only child's shoulders a gentle squeeze. "She's been by your bed every hour the hospital staff allowed and quite a few they don't know about. And when she'd let me join the party, I've been here, too."
"That was very kind of both of you." Erin was cordial, reacting more as Daniel had expected than Dana had hoped. "But as you've probably heard, I'm going to be fine so you should get back to your own lives now."
"How can you say that to us?" Dana's words were awash with indignation. She wriggled to be free of Daniel's hold just as she had a thousand times in her young life.
"I've been crazy worried about you!" Dana inched between the mountain of machines and the bed. Hours of questioning the nurses had familiarized her with the workings of all the equipment. She'd overcome all fear of tripping a wire or kinking a hose.
"I've been waiting for you my whole life. And I've been in this room praying for you to wake up for eighteen days! I've counted the tiles on this ugly floor and the metal hooks that hold the curtain to that track thing on the ceiling. I know how many beeps the heart monitor makes between your breaths and how many times your IV drips in thirty minutes. I've watched while they've bathed you and changed your bandages. The scars are wicked now, but they'll be really cool once they heal."
Dana's words gushed out, a torrent of teenage emotion demanding release. She dared to touch her fingertips to the back of Erin's closed fist.
When Dana spoke again her voice was soft, thoughtful.
"I found out that underneath all that gauze your hair is the same color mine used to be."
Daniel's heart ached in his chest like he'd run a wind sprint. There was no sign of his physical attributes in his child. She had long been desperate to find a connection, a simple resemblance to somebody. Her euphoria over the discovery of something as mundane as her mama's hair color had reduced Daniel's sixteen years of single parenting to the value of a toilet plunger. Nice to know it's there but not something to brag about to your friends.
Dana continued, "And I need to see whether or not our eyes are the same, too."
"I'd like to see that myself." Erin relaxed her left fist and slowly rotated her wrist, not exactly welcoming but neither brushing away the touch of the girl who seemed brave and outspoken.
Must have gotten that from her daddy. Erin imagined a female cookie-cutter version of Daniel. Tall and thin, with those naturally expressive brows of his.
"As a matter of fact, I'd like to see anything." Erin tried to make light of her blindness when in truth, the skin on her neck crawled at the thought of being witnessed this way. Broken. Scarred. Vulnerable.
"Waking up to all this is pretty creepy," Erin admitted. "So I'm sorry about what I said before. I appreciate you being here with me."
She tried to make her croaky words sound sincere but the whole situation was like an out-of-body experience. Maybe any moment the going-toward-the-light part would start. No such luck. She was still very much in this life, in this damaged body, in her dark cocoon with her nose twitching from antiseptic cleanser and no ability to scratch.
"Butter bean, let's sit over here and give Erin a minute to rest her voice.