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Devon Murphy pulled into his driveway and closed his eyes, mentally and physically drained. His back throbbed, muscles ached and lungs burned from exertion after he and his fellow firefighters had spent all night responding to the storm emergencies. His body cried for rest.
His eyes stung as he opened them. Though the sky was still weighted with ominous clouds, he hoped the worst was over. Tornado season ripped through towns without mercy. Lovely homes sat along the streets now with damaged roofs hidden behind huge trees pulled out by the roots as if they were weeds in a garden.
Grateful that his neighborhood had escaped the spring storm, he longed for a shower and sleep, but rest came hard when rolling images relived the destructive night following the wind's devastation on nearby neighborhoods.
He grasped the SUV's door handle, flinching as a trash can shot like a missile past his windshield. Stunned by the power of the new wind shear, he sucked in air, watching an anonymous lawn chair tumble through his front yard and tangle in a shrub. Limbs from his neighbor's maple toppled to the ground as if they were pickup sticks.
A few houses away, sparks alerted him electrical wires were down, and he pulled out his cell phone, hit 911 and waited to hear the dispatcher's voice. "Ann, this is Lieutenant Murphy of the Ferndale Fire Department. Another microburst just hit the West Drayton area. Electrical wires and trees are down. Send out Detroit Energy and Consumers Energy to check downed lines and possible gas leaks."
When he heard her say, "Help's on the way," he ended the call and surveyed the damage. As he headed toward the downed lines, a child's cry jerked his attention across the street. The toddler stood beside an uprooted tree, one limb jutting through the front-room picture window while the rest covered the driveway and part of the lawn.
Devon darted across the street, dodging a fallen tree limb and scooped the toddler into his arms. "Why are you out here alone, son? Where's your mother?"
The boy's tears rolled down his cheeks as he clutched Devon's neck. "Mama's under the tree." With hiccuping sobs and fear growing in his eyes, the toddler pointed at the tree.
Devon dashed around the trunk, stepping over broken limbs while clutching the boy to his chest. His gaze swept over the limbs sprouting new leaves and blocking his view. His own fear heightened. Where was she?
"Mama, get up." The toddler flailed his arms toward a heavy limb close to the side door.
He scanned the area and noticed a red wagon among the limbs. As he moved closer, encouraged by the boy's thrashing arms, he spotted the woman, her dark brown hair splayed across the concrete, her left leg pinned beneath a heavy branch.
After he made his way through the fallen debris, careful not to jar her, he leaned closer, praying she was alive. He hugged the toddler closer and found the woman's wrist, feeling for a pulse. Relief flooded him as he felt the faint but steady beat. Below the tree limb, a trail of blood spotted her pant leg.
Her name? He'd seen the boy and his mother before in the yard, but he'd never had a conversation with her other than a pleasant greeting or a nod. "Ma'am. Can you hear me?"
"Not ma'am. She's Mama."
His eyes shifted to the toddler's anxious face while the boy peered at him and accentuated his proclamation. "She's Mama."
Despite his concern, he couldn't stop the smile.
The boy nodded, and from the young one's expression, Devon suspected the child thought he was a bit dense. "What's your name?"
"Joey." He tilted his head as if weighing the question, but his eyes never left his mother.
"How old are you, Joey?"
The boy held up three fingers, his focus unmoving.
"Can you call your mama? Really loud?"
The toddler's vigorous nod accompanied his screeching voice. "Maaa-maaa, wake up."
Hoping the child's voice would trigger results, Devon searched the woman's face.
Her eyelids fluttered.
Relief. "Don't move, ma'am, until"
"It's Mama." The boy's determination was evident.
He released a breath. "Mama." He needed the toddler out of his arms, but he didn't have the heart to put him down, fearing what he might do. The woman needed to keep still. "Is anyone else in the house, Joey?"
The toddler didn't respond, his eyes focused on his mother.
Devon used his index finger to shift the boy's face toward him. "No one's home? Where's your daddy?"
The boy's expression remained blank.
No daddy? His chest tightened. He'd seen her and the boy outside, sometimes walking and sometimes she pulled him in the wagon. He'd never seen a man, but that didn't mean she didn't have a husband.
The woman's eyes opened, and she tried to lift her head.
"Stay still. Don't move." He placed his hand against her shoulder, encouraging her to remain quiet. "Where do you hurt?"
Fear filled her dazed expression. "What happened?"
"The tree fell, Mama." Joey's voice cut through the air. "Joey?" Her eyes closed again.
"He's fine. I have him right here." He touched her arm. "What is your name, ma'am?" The salutation flew out before he could stop it.
Her lids flickered, then opened. "Ashley. Ashley Kern."
"Good." He gave her arm a reassuring pat before double-checking the facts. "Are you home alone?"
"It's only me and Joey."
Sirens sounded in the distance, growing nearer every second. "Please try not to move until help comes." He pulled his cell phone from his pocket and hit 911 again. "Ann, this is Lieutenant Murphy. I'm still on West Drayton near Pinehurst. I have a female pinned under a large limb from a fallen tree. She is conscious. Pulse is faint but steady. I see blood on her left pant leg. I suspect she has a bone fracture. Likely a compound fracture with the bleeding. I'll need a paramedic ambulance and HURT."
The child's body stiffened.
"Help's on the way, Lieutenant."
"Mama's hurt?" Fear filled the boy's voice.
He hit End and slipped the phone into his pocket, realizing the child misunderstood. Now he had to appease the boy's fear. "Joey." He bounced the boy on his hip. "HURT is what we call people who know how to lift the tree so we can get your mama out without hurting her." Any more than she was already injured. His stomach churned, viewing the blood and the large limb holding her fast.
As he finished, the first truck pulled across the street. The men dropped to the ground, most heading for the downed wires, but his friend Clint Donatelli dashed across the road toward him, taking in the scene. "What do we have here?"
"This boy's mother's trapped. She's dazed but conscious." He motioned toward her. "I called for help."
Clint crouched beside her and felt her pulse. "You'll be out of here shortly, ma'am." He rose and gave Devon a thumbs-up, then ran to the street and crossed.
A police car pulled up at the curb, and before the officers left the car, new sirens drew closer. "Here they come, Joey. These are the good guys who'll help your mom mama."
"Good guys." Joey's grip had lessened as confidence replaced his look of fear.
In moments, the ambulance and HURT truck arrived. The men hurried to his side carrying equipment they would need. He stepped back to let them work. While one crew set off air bags beneath the lower and upper part of the limb that anchored Ashley to the concrete, another team built the cribbing, the hardwood structure used to brace the tree's weight if either of the air bags moved and the tree slipped off the bags. Paramedics moved in with a c-collar, splints and a backboard to immobilize her for the ride to the hospital.
Joey's tears flowed again.
He nestled the child closer. "These are the good guys, Joey. See, they're going to lift the big tree away from your mama and then move her to the ambulance so she can go to the hospital to make sure she's okay."
The child's earlier confidence had vanished, even with his reference to the good guys. Devon's stomach knotted while he tried to explain to the toddler what the crew was doing. When Ashley had been strapped to the backboard and shifted from beneath the limb, Devon moved closer, knowing he needed answers about Joey. "Ashley, I need someone to care for your boy. Tell me who to call. I'll explain what happened." He turned to the nearest paramedic. "Are you going to Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak?"
The medic nodded.
He followed beside Ashley as they carried her down the driveway. "Ashley, is your husband at work?"
Her eyelids lowered. "No husband. Call my sister. Neely Andrews."
Devon pulled out his cell phone. "Joey, your mama will be okay, but she has to go to the hospital so doctors can make everything better.
Fear returned to the toddler's eyes.
Kicking himself, he wished he hadn't mentioned the hospital, but he had to be honest. "Your aunt Neely will come to get you, okay?"
Joey's arms tightened around his neck. "'Kay." Though Joey's voice was hushed, Devon sensed Ashley heard him.
He punched in the numbers as Ashley struggled to relate them. As the phone rang, he shifted away, hoping what Joey heard next didn't upset him. The woman's voice jerked him back to the phone call. "Neely?"
The line was silent a moment. "Yes?"
"This is Lieutenant Murphy from the Ferndale Fire Department." He heard her intake of breath and wished the call could have begun differently. "Your sister Ashley asked me to call."
"Is it a fire? The house? What happened?"
He provided the details as best he could with Joey listening. "Would you like to pick up Joey here, or should I meet you at Beaumont emergency?"
"Beaumont. I'll be there as quickly as I can."
He stopped to relay his destination to Clint and noticed a neighbor standing at a distance. He waved the man over. "Do you know Ashley?"
"Sure. She's a good neighbor, and so's Joey." He chucked the boy under the chin. "Is she okay?"
"She'll be fine."
"Can we keep an eye on Joey for her?" The man opened his arms.
Joey let out a cry. "Mama." He reached toward her. "I want my mama."
"His aunt is meeting us at Beaumont. I think Ashley will feel better knowing he's there, but thanks for the offer." He turned away but stopped. "Can you secure the house?"
"Sure thing. We have a key." He motioned to the broken window. "I'll cover it for her, too. Tell her not to worry."
Before Devon could thank him, a car careened into the man's driveway, and a woman with a halo of white hair jumped out, her hand to her mouth and her eyes wide as a basketball as she darted toward the man. "What happened?
Devon used the distraction to make his exit. House secured. Window covered. Now, Joey. He gave the boy a hug, thinking of his own young daughter and how she might respond in an emergency.
With Kaylee on his mind, he remembered he would need a car seat to transport Joey. He carried him across the street and located the car seat stored in his garage. The plastic he'd used to cover it was dusty, but beneath, the seat looked like new. He grinned, picturing Kaylee strapped in the chair and singing nursery rhymes whenever they went somewhere. Now more than a year older, he'd purchased a larger restraint seat for her.
Once Joey was strapped into the backseat, Devon slid behind the steering wheel and headed toward Beaumont, sending up a prayer for Ashley's well-being.
Searing red burned through Ashley's eyelids. She tried to raise them, but her effort faded in the struggle. Vague memories stirred through her fogged brain. A stormy sky. The wind. Joey's wagon. The tree. That was it. The haze shifted, and she tried again to pry open her eyes.
A cool hand touched her arm. "You're fine. Don't try to move yet."
She'd heard those words before, but it had been a man's voice. A kind voice, like the woman's, but rich and comforting. An image flickered in her mind. Dark windblown hair. Brown tired eyes, but in them, she saw compassion. A bristled jaw. And. And Joey against his chest.
"Joey." She tried to lift her head, but a headache hammered it to the sheet. "Where's Joey?"
"Your son is fine, Mrs. Kern." Ashley felt the woman pat her arm again.
Her chest constricted. "Fine. What does that mean?" She tried to shift her leg to the edge of the mattress, but the weight bound her in place.
"He's in the waiting room with your sister and a nice-looking gentleman."
Waiting room. She turned her head sideways and willed her eyes to focus. This wasn't her bedroom. The railings along her bed. Eggshell-colored walls. Privacy curtains. The blurred memory eased into her mind. The sirens. The tree. The men. The wail of an ambulance. "Where am I? Beaumont Hospital?"
"That's right. Things will be clearer when the anesthetic wears off."
Her pulse tore through her arm. "Anesthetic?" Through the fuzz, she watched the nurse adjust an IV.
"The doctor will be in soon and explain what happened."
Before she could demand answers, the nurse slipped through the curtain. She was alone. Her mind began to clear. Memories one at a time connected. She'd been in the kitchen. Joey had fallen asleep on the sofa as he often did in the late morning, and rather than disturb him, she'd tossed a quilt over him and let him sleep. She'd noticed the May sky, strange clouds that looked threatening. Then she'd remembered her car parked in the driveway with the window down. Why hadn't she pulled it into the garage?
Before she could act, a powerful wind caught Joey's wagon. She'd left it outside the door when they came in from their walk. Another dumb thing she'd done. A lawn chair tumbled through her yard, and fearing the wagon would be caught in the squall, she'd dashed outside and grabbed the wagon handle. That was the last she remembered, except for the vague images that followed when she'd awakened on the ground beneath a heavy limb and Joey was in the man's arms.
Tears edged down her cheeks. She needed to see Joey now. Where was he? Where was the doctor? How long would she have to wait?
Devon tapped his foot, thinking he should leave but not wanting to. Over an hour had passed, and his earlier exhaustion had returned, leaving his brain fried. The day seemed like a dream, but then so many of those days did. Bad dreams. At least this one had a happy ending.