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"Mister! Mommy needs help!"
The child's cry spun U.S.A.F. Pararescue Jumper Ben-li Dillinger on his toes to face its source. Purchases clunked beside his car, Ben's feet propelled him toward the youngster.
Tears falling from two teddy-bear-big eyes brought Ben, heart and body, to his knees. Speaking of bears, she clutched a tattered brown one.
"What's wrong, princess?"
Ben scanned Refuge Mall's parking lot for the mother. Maybe she had car trouble. But it wouldn't make sense for a parent to send a child this young for help. No vehicle with its hood propped, either. In fact, his was only one of the few remaining since closing time minutes ago. Not only that, the child's duress surpassed a stranded-car scenario.
A tiny hand tugged him up. "C'mon! Mommy's over here. Something bad happened!"
Urgency speared Ben. Hand in hand they loped around the building. Near a pharmacy across the deserted lot, a compact car that had seen better days sat, trunk open. Steam billows hissed from a gaping hood accordioned by impact. A dented front bumper hugged a light pole. A motionless human form plastered to the dash spiked Ben's pulse.
He loosened his hand from the girl's and ran at a dead run toward the car, then stopped. Kid couldn't be more than six, seven years old. Too short for an SUV to see if it sped across the lot. Ben circled back, swept her up and sprinted to the fractured vehicle. Primer, faded red paint and rust coated the exterior. The child panted, either from ninety-degree heat or fear.
Closer now, Ben wished for more light from the low-slung southern Illinois sunset and peered through the driver's side window. A young woman lay slumped over the steering wheel.
Wavy, light brown hair spilled over her cheeks and dusted the dash. Fog misted the inside glass, prohibiting him from assessing her further. At least the haze indicated she had to have been breathing recently. Child still hoisted with one arm, Ben yanked the driver's side door handle with his free hand.
Locked. And hot.
"Ma'am?" He pressed his face to the front glass. Palm flat against it, he pounded on it, then the side window. Nothing. Hand fisted, he banged harder, called louder. "Ma'am!"
He set the little girl down on the curb and gave her shoulders a comforting squeeze. "Stay put, princess. I'm a paramedic. I'll help your mom."
If it's not already too late.
Ben hustled down the length of the car. Jerked the back door handle. Resistance met his effort. Hands cupped against the glass, he peered, called and pounded.
Other than music wafting like a dirge from within, eerie, dead silence entombed the interior. He imagined ovenworthy temperatures inside the car could fry eggs on the dash.
Was she even still breathing? He squinted.
Patches of deathly pale skin peeked through her mass of curls, identical to the little child's in color and texture. What part of her arms he could see below her T-shirt hinted at pink. Good. Not mottled or cyanotic. His own breathing slowed.
Rushing to the passenger side, Ben flipped open his phone, dialed 911 with one hand, tried the doors with his other.
He reported his name, credentials, findings and location to the dispatcher then remained on the line. Car couldn't be as old as he'd thought. Otherwise, it wouldn't have those child safety locks. He'd kick a window out if he had to.
"Jesus, please." Ben ran moist palms over his shorts and looked around for something besides himself to break in with.
Yes! He dived in, shoved a plastic bag aside and crawled through. Scrambled over the folded-down backseat, entering the car as the child had probably exited. Smart kid. How long had they sat here before she'd gone for help?
Car was definitely DOA but the radio was still running. Weird. He recognized the song as one he'd learned chords to during worship practice at Refuge Community Church this morning.
Ben climbed in and turned the radio down. "Miss?"
Hand on her sweat-drenched shoulder, he leaned bare knees to sit and counted her breaths. He pressed two fingers to that spot on her neck and hoped to feel life pulse beneath his fingers. Her shoulders rose and fell with the sweet breath of life. With respirations present, she had to have a heartbeat.
What was the deal?
Ben increased the pressure of his fingers in tiny increments. There. Yes. Thank You. His own heart rate slowed.
Moist hair clung to the victim's face. Ben brushed it away and updated the dispatcher. "Other than a mask of pallor, she looks peaceful in slumber." Except a young mother wouldn't sneak a Sunday afternoon snooze in a scalding parking lot.
"I have an inkling something's up with her heart." Translucent gray lips blended into her face. Same starkly pale color. Not a hint of pink. Mauve-blue circles ringed her eyes.
"Caucasian female, early twenties, small build. Pulse weak and erratic. Respiratory rate normal but shallow. She's overheated, though not dangerously." Phone to ear, Ben informed her there was an unattended child with the unconscious driver.
"Sir, we have a unit en route but they have a long detour due to a broken-down train blocking the tracks across Main. It may take longer than normal for them to arrive."
"Ten-four. If her stats change, I'll contact you."
Hands beneath the woman, he lifted her torso off the steering column and leaned her against the seat. Palming a lever on the side, he tilted it back. Careful with her neck in case she'd injured it, he lifted her chin, opening her airway. The movement elicited a weak moan but other than that, no response.
Probably she'd become incapacitated prior to running into the block. Hard to tell since she didn't have her seat belt on.
Ben dipped his head out the passenger door and gave the child a reassuring smile. "Ambulance is on its way."
Hopefully it'd get here soon, but the ambulance service sat blocks from Refuge's lone hospital, located clear across town.
Wrist tilted, he peered at his watch. Needed to meet his younger brother Hutton at the airport in a short hour.
Hutton's frequent panic attacks and Mosaic Down Syndrome made it difficult for him to travel by air to begin with, much less fly alone as he'd done today. Ben not being there to pick Hutton up could propel him over the edge and bomb to bits any bridge of progress Ben had made with Hutton's trust.
The little girl inched from the curb to the door. Big brown eyes grew wider with each shuffling step. "What's a matter with her?" She chewed the end of her finger and her chin quivered as she peered beneath long eyelashes at her mother.
Heart caught, Ben wanted to scoop her up and hug her, but didn't suppose he should, being a stranger.
"Not sure. Help's coming, though." The faded seat creaked when he pivoted into a better position to face the youngster.
Huge tears bubbled, then dripped from a pair of eyes struggling to be more brave than scared as they glistened at him. When she stepped toward Ben and reached up tiny hands, he couldn't help it. He opened his arms to her. The waif of a girl moved like a minimissile. He lifted. She scrambled up in his lap then burrowed beneath his chin. Tucked herself into his chest like she belonged there.
Rivulets of sweat trailed down his back. Pink ribbons affixed like fluffy tiaras atop her head tickled his neck as he leaned over the mother and rolled down the driver's window. The little girl's hair felt squeaky clean. Groomed and cared for. A warm breeze lifted the strands, bringing hints of strawberry.
He transferred weight from knees to rump in the seat to monitor the mother and hold her trembling child simultaneously.
With featherlike motions, the little girl rubbed her mom's arm with one hand and clenched her stuffed animal tighter with the other. "Did she die?" Small whimpers puffed out heart-shaped lips resembling the mother's. "Because my guinea pig died and never came back to life again and I'd miss Mommy so, so bad if she never came back to life again." Tears spilled over the rims of her eyes and raced down rosy cheeks.
Ben hugged her closer, wishing he'd anticipated the scope of her fear. "No, princess. Your mommy's not dead." Being a U.S. Special Operations airman had trained him to notice every intricate detail about everything. His senses took it in automatically no matter the situation. He regretted not picking up on her fright and distortion about her mother's condition.
"B-but she won't wake up. L-like my guinea pig. I tried and tried to wake Mommy. But I couldn't." She shuddered.
"She only passed out," Ben explained. "Honest."
"P-passed out what?"
"No, I mean she fainted. It's like a deep sleep is all. Can you remember what happened?" He placed a soothing hand on her back, moving his thumb side to side much the same way he strummed his guitar strings during worship. He prayed silent songs for God to comfort her and chase away fear.
She shrugged one shoulder. "We was in the store to buy some, um, um, I can't tell ya that part." She dropped her voice to whispers and fiddled with the buttons on her denim overall dress.
"That's okay. Tell the part after you left the store," Ben whispered back.
"We got in the car and Mommy told me to buckle up. Only she didn't buckle in Bearby like usual."
Panic surged Ben's heart rate. "Bearby?" Dear God, don't let there have been another child in this car who wandered off. Ben scanned the parking lot and started to scoot from the seat when scraps of tattered yarn thrust in his face.
"Bearby's my well, it was supposed to be a baby but Mommy's only learning how to sew. He looks lots like a bear and a little like a baby so I named him Bearby." The girl suspended the toy in front of Ben's face.
"Ah. Got it." He peeked around the bear-baby thing. "So, there weren't other children in your car?"
She shook her head and rubbed a frayed loop of Bearby's worn string hair. One blink later a faraway expression embraced her features and she veered Bearby back in front of Ben's nose. "He doesn't like to be ignored."
"Oh. My bad." Ben took Bearby's paw-hand between his two fingers and shook gently. "Nice to meet you, Bearby. I'm Ben." He raised his vision to the girl. "What's your name?"
"Not s'pose to tell ya since you're strange. But if you asked Bearby, he'd say I was Reece North."
Ben reassessed the mother. Nothing had changed. She didn't look worse, but she didn't look better either. A prayer song worked its way into his mind. Giver of life He whispered it over the woman. When he looked up, he caught the child watching him curiously.
"What's your mom's name?"
"Amelia Grace North, and you can recognize her because one of her eyes goes crooked and she hates that."
No idea what that meant. Lazy eye, maybe? But the child's chatter seemed to keep her from fretting about her mother.
"What happened after she forgot to buckle Bearby?"
"She kept breathing long. You know, like you're going off the diving board. She blinked fast and said she needed to drink and sit but she was in the seat. I tried to get her water. She yelled to get in the car. Mommy never yells, and I cried."
"I understand." He leaned down and ran his hand around the floorboard. Bingo. He lifted the worn wallet and located Amelia's ID. Pretty girl. Organ donor. Twenty-four. Two years younger than him. Must have dropped weight since this photo.
Other than a North Carolina driver's license, the wallet contained seven dollars in bills, pictures of what looked to be Reece, a few coins and a red construction paper heart engraved with "I love Mommy." No credit or debit cards. No checkbook. No emergency contact list. Very odd.
He faced Reece. "Then what happened?"
The child rubbed her mother's cheek with Bearby's fluff. "She said sorry and we'd get some water at a drive-through. Then she started the car and took off. Her words turned silly and she went asleep when she was driving and we bumped the light."
"So, she fell asleep before she hit the pole?"
"Yes, sir." Her head bobbled up at a siren's whine.
In the distance, blinking red LED lights strobed through a row of white-dotted dogwood trees planted in the median on the far side of the mall.
He rechecked Amelia's vitals and returned his attention to Reece. "Was she feeling all right earlier today?"
Reece sighed. "I think she was feeling kinda sad today. Grandma and Grandpa are nice to me but mean to Mommy. Yell, yell, yell. That's all Grandpa does to her. We was living with them, and now we don't live nowhere."
The whine of more approaching sirens widened the little girl's eyes. "Blinkin' panda cars! The cops are comin' too?"
Ben chuckled. "Seems that way. They'll take care of your sick car while the ambulance crew takes care of your mom." Maybe he should call a family member. "Where is your father?"
"Who knows? He left my mom when I was in her belly." She dropped her chin to her chest and scooted off his lap.
Gripped with the inexplicable urge to tug her back, Ben resisted. He exited the car, whistled and flagged paramedics over. An echoing whistle sounded beside him.
Arms shot above her head, Reece waved them in crisscross motions too, mimicking Ben's stance. She watched him instead of the approaching responders. "Met my dad but a judge said he can't be around me because he's unfit. Took me to bars where he works and forgot me a few times when I was only a kid."
Ben stifled a laugh. Seemed to him the girl was still a kid, but in her mind she must not be. Gusts of compassion moved him. "I'm sorry to hear that. It's his loss, you know?"
Defiant chin tilted skyward, a scowl pinched her freckle-dotted face. "Don't matter, 'cause we don't need a man or anyone else around to help us."
Kid come up with that on her own? Or from something the mother said? Suddenly, uniformed men and women flocked to the scene.
Stepping back, Ben studied Reece, the mother and then their sparse possessions in the seat. Thick emotion settled deep for this young unconscious woman and her daughter.
Clearly they'd fallen on tough times as evidenced by the lone white, lumpy trash bag. Well-worn clothes, toys and holey socks sprigged out its top. A large, black lawn bag resided in the trunk. When he'd moved it aside to enter the vehicle, old pillows and thin blankets had spilled out.
The economy car was clean inside save scattered crayons and coloring pages. High mileage. By the looks of that crinkled hood and inverted bumper, it'd have to go in for significant work. Repairs could cost more than the car's worth.
Police and EMTs buzzed around the car. Ben relayed information as they tended Amelia. Reece stayed on his heels. Her darting eyes and feet proved her skittish of everyone.
Everyone except him.