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The cell phone rang from the passenger seat.
Marielle glanced at the display to see that it was one of the youth group members calling. It was also 2:49 p.m., which was a mere four minutes after the students were dismissed for the day. "Not now, Brittany," she muttered as she rammed her foot on the brake pedal to avoid a man who was jay-walking, or rather jay-running, across the street. As soon as the man was out of her path, Marielle picked up speed to the snail's pace of the rest of the downtown traffic.
The phone stopped ringing, but only for as long as it took Brittany to redial.
"This better be important," Marielle grumbled as she turned out of traffic and into the nearest driveway—the entrance leading to an older complex with main-level parking, and a small office building above.
Carefully, she pulled in and stopped, leaving enough room that someone who needed to get into the parking area could pass her. She reached for the still-ringing phone and hit the talk button, but before she could say hello, a deafening bang sounded above her head.
Marielle dropped the phone. Instinctively, she ducked and covered her head with her arms. She waited for more—for the car to shake, for the crash of more to hit the car, for a hail of debris to fall around her.
But all was silent.
With her arms still sheltering her head, she peeked up at the ceiling of her car. The center was heavily dented. A groan of stressed metal signified a movement above, and a man's body rolled off the roof and landed limply on the hood.
On impact his eyes fluttered open. For a split second she made eye contact with the man through the wind-shield. A combination of pain, shock and confusion showed in his face. Then his eyes drifted shut.
Marielle could barely pick up the phone, her hands were shaking so badly. After three jabs she managed to hit the end button on Brittany without speaking to her, then poked out 9-1-1. "A man just landed on the roof of my car!" she yelled to the operator. "I'm at the complex on 5th and Main! Send an ambulance!" Without waiting for a reply, she threw the phone onto the seat.
Marielle pushed the door, but it wouldn't open. Instead of wasting time fighting with it, she scrambled out the window. As her feet touched the ground, people began to gather around her car.
The man lay sprawled on the hood, still on his stomach, not moving. His arms and legs didn't seem to be at odd angles, which Marielle thought was probably a good sign. She didn't see blood gushing from anywhere except his nose. She supposed this was also a good sign.
She could detect labored breathing from the movement of his chest beneath the thin cotton of his shirt.
She focused on controlling her voice to sound as calm as possible, even though her heart was racing and her chest was so tight she could barely breathe. "Can you speak?" she asked, looking into his face, hoping she would be able to tell if he was alert. As she spoke, his eyes opened, but they didn't look right.
Her first impulse was to hold one finger up and see if he could focus on it, not that she would know what to do after that.
The man tensed slightly, as if he wanted to push himself upward but couldn't. His whole body went completely limp, and his head lay heavily on the hood. His eyes turned to her—haunted eyes—but Marielle doubted that he really saw her.
"Why?" he moaned. His eyes rolled back, and he passed out.
Marielle froze. She knew that someone involved in an accident was supposed to kept still and calm until the professionals arrived.
She looked up, as if judging how far he'd fallen would help her figure out what to do.
A woman's head poked out of the third-floor window directly above them.
"Help us!" Marielle called out.
The woman's head disappeared quickly inside without her acknowledging what had happened.
Marielle returned all her attention to the injured man. Trying to be gentle, but firm, Marielle pressed her hands into the center of his back to steady him so he wouldn't have a second fall, this time from the hood of her car onto the cement driveway.
"Does anyone know what to do?" she called out over her shoulder to the people that had gathered around her car. "Is there anyone here with any first-aid training?"
Everyone backed up.
A siren finally sounded in the distance. Marielle turned back to the man. She could only think of one thing to do until the ambulance arrived, and that was to pray for him.
Just in case he moved, she kept her eyes open while she spoke.
"Dear Lord," she prayed softly, so only the man and God could hear. She looked at his face, a face she knew would haunt her dreams for a long time to come.
"Please help this man to live. Please love him and touch him and be with him as You heal whatever injuries he has. Please guide the doctors and nurses, and just make him all better. Amen."
A small group of people ran out of the building. "Russ! Russ!" one of the men called out.
Just then the ambulance arrived. The attendants shooed away everyone but Marielle, instructing her to steady the man while they prepared to move him onto a stretcher. A police car arrived as they secured him to the gurney and slid it into the ambulance.
By the time the ambulance doors closed and the lights and siren went on, quite a large crowd had gathered on the sidewalk, and the traffic on the street had ground to a halt. A crew from the Daily News pushed their way through the throng.
The police officer approached her. "Excuse me, I need to take a statement. Is this your vehicle?"
For the first time, Marielle looked at the size of the dent in the roof of her car. "Yes, it is."
"Were there any witnesses?"
"I don't know. I didn't even see anything myself. I was at a dead stop..." Marielle's voice trailed off and she shuddered inwardly at her own use of the word dead. She didn't want to entertain the possibility. "I pulled out of traffic to answer my cell phone, and that was it. There was this bang and then he rolled off the roof and landed on the hood."
"Did anyone come forward? We need to identify him." She pointed to a group of people standing beside her car. "Those people came running out of the building. One of them called out the name Russ, but the ambulance got here at the same time." She paused. "Do you think he's going to be okay?"
"I can't say, ma'am. Do you know where he came from?"
Marielle looked up at the three-story building. "I didn't see anything until I heard the bang, and by then it was too late. That's all I know."
The officer tucked the notepad into his pocket and scribbled a number on a card. "Thank you for your time. Here's the file number—you'll have to report this to your insurance agent. Please call me if you remember anything more."
The second the police officer walked toward the onlookers, a reporter shoved a microphone in her face. "I'm Claudia Firth from the Daily News. Do you know if he jumped or if he was pushed?"
"I don't know anything. Just suddenly there was this big bang, and there he was." Marielle trembled at the memory. "If you'll excuse me, I have someplace to be, and I'm late. I think those people know something." She pointed to the bystanders who were now speaking with the officer.
Before the reporter had even lowered the microphone, Marielle turned and hurried to her car.
She gritted her teeth, held her breath, grabbed the handle and pulled, hoping that it could still be opened from the outside, even though she hadn't been able to open it from the inside.
With a pop and a groan of stressed metal, the latch gave way. Marielle braced herself to regain her balance after the sudden release of tension, then scrambled in behind the steering wheel. She slammed the door shut, gave it a small push to make sure it would stay closed, and drove away.
Just before she turned out of the parking lot, she glanced in the rearview mirror to where both the police officer and the reporter were speaking to the shrinking crowd.
She wasn't sure what had happened, but she sure wanted to know....
"Hello, Mr. Branson. Just checking up on you again. Are you awake?"
Russ opened one eye and tried to move as little as possible. "Unfortunately, yes," he replied quietly. "How are you feeling?"
He'd definitely felt better, although right now, he was simply glad to be alive. "I'd feel much better if you could give me something for this headache."
"You know I can't do that yet. We have to get you sitting up so we can go through the routine again. It's time."
"Already?" Russ winced as the nurse helped pull him to a sitting position, taking care not to aggravate his cracked ribs. As she raised the back of the bed, every minute felt like an hour. Finally Russ could lean back again.
"We only have to do this once more in another hour, and then, if everything stays the same, I can leave you alone."
"Good. Don't take it personally, but it's been a long night."
The nurse smiled. "I'm sure it has. Look up. How many fingers this time?"
"Good. Now watch my pen." The nurse shone the flashlight in his eyes while he watched the pen moving around. The beam of light seared into his brain, but he didn't know if that was normal. If it wasn't, he feared they would make him stay.
"You're going pale again. How are you feeling?" Russ exhaled, not realizing he'd been holding his breath. "Like I've been run over by a truck. Tell me the truth. Are there tire-tread marks on my forehead?"
The nurse cleared her throat and pointed the pen at him. "Mr. Branson..."
He almost started to smile, but the movement in his face caused another wave of pain to shoot through his cheeks and up into his broken nose. "I don't want to complain," he said, "but I've still got that splitting headache that just won't go away. And it really hurts when I laugh." Not that he'd actually laughed. Nothing was very funny since he'd regained consciousness. They wouldn't give him any painkillers until he passed the safety time zone that would signify there were no complications to his concussion.