Reason to Breathe
Though it was barely after ten in the morning, the world outside Keisha Jefferson’s small house on Third Street had grown dark. The sudden change drew her outside, as if pulled by an unseen rope, even though storms weren’t unusual for late September in the town of Forgotten, when the weather began to shift all over Kansas. She came to a standstill in the driveway near her bright red Chevy Sonic as the first drops of rain began pelting the sidewalk.
Her accident had occurred on a day like this four and a half years ago, an accident that had irrevocably changed her life.
For the second time.
Wind tore through the trees along the street, ripping away leaves and tiny twigs and scattering them over the yard. Dust hung in the air. Her freshly combed hair whipped around her face, the dark brown strands knotting and twisting. Her eyes began to water.
Rain came down harder, like tears, and the aroma of wet pavement filled her nose. She stood, as if rooted to the spot, her thoughts tumbling. She didn’t hate the rain or the driving wind any more than she hated the lightning that had started the fire that had taken her parents while she was still in high school. The rain simply was and holding a grudge against nature was pointless.
Still, the memories made it hard to breathe.
She remembered too vividly the rain pounding against the windshield the night of her accident and the worry that she wouldn’t make it before midnight.
In the end, she hadn’t made it at all.
And he had not waited.
Open the door, she told herself.
She had to be to work at the Butter Cake Café by ten-thirty, and she wouldn’t get there standing by the car getting soaked. She resisted the urge to go back inside her house and curl up in bed with cup of hot cocoa. Maggie wouldn’t mind if she came in late today as the storm would most likely keep people home anyway. But Keisha would mind. Giving in to a memory was like living in fear, and she wouldn’t live that way. Not now, and not ever.
She opened the door and slid behind the wheel, starting the engine with a smooth motion, checking the rearview mirror before easing out of the driveway. As she picked up speed, the rain sounded like slaps against the windshield. Goose bumps broke out across her bare arms. She should have grabbed a jacket.
She drove slowly and carefully, as she always did. It was one of the reasons she’d chosen a bright red car to replace her ruined vehicle. Everyone she crossed paths with knew the Sonic was hers, including the local police, which kept her obedient to the traffic laws. When it was raining, she made sure to keep five miles under the speed limit. These were the only concessions she’d permitted herself since accident. They were subtle, hidden, known only to herself.
She reached the north side of Main Street near the fairgrounds. Belatedly, she realized she should have gone through the back streets to avoid facing other cars in the storm, but the weather seemed to have chased everyone away. Even for mid-morning on a Wednesday, the streets were unusually deserted.
Then she saw the yellow Beetle wrapped around the huge light pole on the side of the street next to the fairground parking lot. Panic spread through her. She knew who drove that car, and no one inside it appeared to be moving.
Keisha rolled to a stop, heart hammering in her chest. No, not again, she thought. Of course, it wasn’t the same. This time she wasn’t in that car, and no other car appeared to be involved in this accident.
She hurried forward, hoping it didn’t look as bad as it seemed, that the Beetle’s twisted front didn’t indicate a fatality—or something worse. And there was worse. She knew. Reaching the driver’s door seemed to take forever, but finally she was staring down into Laina Cox’s face. Laina’s shock of blond frizzy hair obscured much of her features, but her safety belt was on and the driver’s airbag had deployed. No sign of blood. Of course that didn’t mean that a limb somewhere out of sight hadn’t been compromised. And the way the entire front of the car was bent . . .
Keisha tried the door, but it was firmly stuck. She pounded on the side window, crisscrossed by myriad cracks. “Laina? Are you okay? Can you hear me?”
She hurried around to the passenger door, seeing the damage was much worse there. The pole blocked the doorway and took up most of the space where a passenger might have been sitting. But the door itself was half off, leaving a tiny V that Keisha could lean through into the wrecked interior. She was grateful there was no passenger.
Laina still didn’t move. Keisha could see now from this angle that Laina’s limbs didn’t seem trapped, but even awake she wouldn’t be getting out from this side easily. Keisha wriggled further inside, the metal of the door jabbing into her stomach and hips as her feet left the ground. Cubed bits of glass from the shattered front window were everywhere, and she had to brush them off wherever she put a hand. At last, she reached to check Laina’s pulse.
They’d gone to high school together, and had even been friends at one point, but they’d drifted apart after the fire when Keisha had gone to live with her aunt and uncle before heading off to college in St. Louis. At the time, Keisha had been too numb to care, but now she violently wished she’d made more effort. She didn’t know much about Laina’s current life, even though they had both somehow ended up in the Forgotten Ladies Auxiliary, at the request of the older members who had begged for more energetic help.
The faint jumping of Laina’s heartbeat registered on Keisha’s fingertips, and she let out a breathy sob of relief. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as the twisted car indicated. Still, she needed help—and fast. There was no ambulance or hospital in Forgotten, and calling the one in Panna Creek would take too long, but all the officers in Forgotten had emergency training, and they could get Doc Sayer and his medical van out here faster than she could.
She fumbled for her phone, only to realize with a sinking feeling that she’d left it home when she’d driven away so suddenly, mesmerized by the freak storm. Well, she’d use the emergency feature on Laina’s phone. That would go to the station. She spied the strap of a purse on the floor between the dash and the pole and stretched to grab it, but her fingers didn’t quite reach from this angle.
“Oh, Laina, I don’t know what to do,” Keisha muttered. Laina’s neck didn’t look contorted, but what if moving her did serious damage? No, Laina had to wake before she tried to get her into her car.
Biting her bottom lip, she reached out again and slapped Laina on the cheek.
“Wake up! Laina, wake up!”
Laina’s eyes fluttered, and she shifted slightly. “Wh-what . . .?”
“You had an accident. But you’re going to be okay.” Isn’t that what you always said, even when it wasn’t true? Keisha distinctly remembered someone telling her after the accident that she’d be okay, as if her life wouldn’t change forever.
Laina blinked a few more times before finally appearing to take in her situation. “Can you get me out?” She moved and then gasped. “Oh, my arm!” Her voice rose to a cry on the last word.
“How does your neck feel?” Keisha asked. “You shouldn’t move too much.”
Laina closed her eyes, moving her neck slightly before opening them again. “I’m a little stiff but okay. It’s just my arm. And my right foot. I can’t pull it out—or really feel it at all.”
“I left my phone home, but I’ll get the door open, and see if I can get your purse from that side. We’ll call police dispatch. If worst come to worse, I’ll drive to the station and come back for you. It’s only just down the road.”
“Don’t leave me! Please.” Laina’s breath came out in short pants.
“Okay, I won’t. I’m going around to the other side. I have something in my car that might help get you free.”
Laina gave a faint nod. “Okay. Hurry.”
“I will.” Keisha pushed herself backward, shimmying out of the car awkwardly.
She jogged back to her own vehicle, shivering in the rain that didn’t show any signs of letting up. Call her paranoid, but she’d bought the heavy-duty crowbar on the same day she’d bought the Sonic. The emergency workers had used both a cutter and a crowbar to get her out after the accident and having one in the back made her feel safer. Silly, sometimes, but safer. And it had come in handy, both at the house and at the café.
The sound of a vehicle redirected her attention. Immediately, she ran to the edge of the road and began waving her arms wildly above her head. At this point, she didn’t care who it was, so long as they had a phone or were willing to go for help, and anyone in Forgotten would do that. She’d even welcome Jeremy Wilson, with his strong farmer arms and his awkward advances. She’d tried to tell him it was her fault, not his, the fact that she wasn’t attracted to him, but he never seemed to hear.
To her relief, the gleaming black truck angled in her direction. Hurriedly, she jumped out of the way, moving toward her car. She was opening the hatchback when the driver stepped from the truck into the rain. He wore snug blue jeans, a fitted navy jacket, and a baseball cap over his blond hair that curled at the edges. Even though her eyes were full of rain and tears, and four and a half years separated them, she recognized him instantly. He had the same blue eyes and cleft chin. Probably the same dimples too. The blond hair was darker than it had been in high school and college, as if he didn’t get out in the sun much these days, but the way it curled at the edges was oh-so-familiar.
Xander! her heart sang out exultantly. But her mouth didn’t form the word. It lodged in her throat, filled with bitterness and anger, hurt and betrayal.
“Keisha?” he asked, coming toward her quickly and sounding as surprised as she felt.
She wished the ground would open and swallow her before she melted into a puddle at his feet. Or, worse, threw herself into his arms.
“Are you okay?” He reached out to touch her elbow, but she backed away before he made contact.
Questions . . . . so many questions came to her lips, but she bit them all back. “It’s not me. It’s Laina Cox. We have to get her out. And do you have a phone? We need to call the police.”
“Still no hospital here?” he asked, reaching for his back pocket.
Keisha shook her head and ducked inside the hatch to grab the crowbar.
“Wait, what are you doing with that?”
“Getting her out.”
“Better not to move her yet.”
Fury waved over her. As if he had a say in anything she did. “I’m getting my friend out of that car,” she growled, shoving back a wet chunk of hair that had fallen over her shoulder.
Turning on her heel, she hurried back to the driver’s side of the Beetle. Laina was staring out the window, her face drawn with pain, looking starkly pale against the bright makeup she always wore. Her reddened lips moved, but with the noise of the rain and the glass separating them, Keisha couldn’t understand anything.
She searched the door, trying to find a cranny to shove in the crowbar, but the door was shoved too tightly against the rest of the frame. Giving into a moment of frustration, she banged on the side of the door with the palm of her hand.
Xander came up next to her, his phone in hand. “Let me see if I can push it open from the other side. I need to assess her anyway.”
Before Keisha could respond, he was around the other side of the car, trying to squeeze through the V in the door—utterly impossible, given his size. Only his head and one of his arms fit. “Don’t worry, Laina,” he said, his voice muffled but carrying through the glass. “We’re going to help. Try to stay calm. How are you feeling? Can you breathe okay?”
Keisha couldn’t hear Laina’s faint response, but he appeared satisfied.
More questions followed. “Can you see okay? Are you dizzy? Are you nauseated? Okay. That’s okay. Can you open your eyes and look at me? I need to see them. It’s going to be a little bright.” And he was shining a light in her eyes like some kind of doctor.
He was back around the car in a minute, the phone pressed to his ear. “I think she might have internal bleeding,” he was saying. “Doc should look at her right away. And we may need help getting her out of here, so hurry.”
Keisha knew internal bleeding could be fatal—it almost had been with her. Her breathing quickened as she glanced down at Laina through the glass, fighting panic. Laina’s eyes were closed again, her head resting against the back of the seat. Her right arm lay across her chest with her other arm supporting it.
Keisha lifted the crowbar in determination. She’d get that door off if she had to dismantle it piece by piece.
“Woah, there.” Xander grabbed the crowbar, holding it steady but not taking it from her. “I think this outer handle is broken. Maybe you could go around and try to reach the inside one. I can’t fit inside, but I think you can. And then you can push while I pull. We just need a crack.”
For a heartbeat, she resisted, gripping onto the crowbar as if it were a lifeline in the sea of her emotions. Then she let it go, nodding shortly, and hurried around to the passenger side once more. She squeezed into the narrow space, wiggling and pushing. Pain registered on the front of her thighs, but she didn’t care. Something caught—was it clothing?—and she gasped out a quiet sob of frustration as she couldn’t quite get past the steering wheel to reach the door handle. Glancing at Laina’s face, now a foot from her own, Keisha saw that her eyes were open and staring.
Was she dead? The wail of a police siren cut through the sound the rain. Please hurry, Keisha begged silently.
Laina’s eyes blinked. “Thank you,” she whispered.
“You’re going to be okay,” Keisha responded.
If only she could crawl a bit further inside. She strained, jerking herself forward like an inchworm. Something gave way, and she lurched forward, her fingers grazing the door handle.
“I got it!” she called, giving the handle a triumphant tug as Xander pulled from the other side.
The door budged only slightly, but he pushed in the crowbar, and the door creaked loudly as it opened. In the next instant, Xander was on his knees, his hands running over Laina’s neck and head and then shining a light again into her eyes.
“Look right at me, Laina,” he ordered. “That’s it. Does your head hurt?”
“Do you know your name?”
“Of course I do.” She sounded irritated.
“You know what year it is.”
“Duh.” She squinted at him. “Who are you?”
“I’m Xander Greenwood. Don’t you remember me from high school?”
“Not really. You play football?”
He laughed. “Didn’t most of the guys? Yeah, I played, but only because we didn’t have enough better players. I’m not surprised you don’t remember me. I’m a few years older than you ladies.”
“Sorry,” Laina said.
“Truthfully, I don’t remember you either. Keisha told me your name.”
Laina gave a slight snort. “Story of my life. So am I okay?”
“Well, assuming you really do know your name and the year, I like what I’m seeing now that I’m close enough to get a better look at you. You’ve probably broken your arm, and I think you have some minor internal bleeding we’ll need to watch, but aside from some really nasty bruises on your face where you hit the airbag, yeah, you’re going to be okay. But you tell me immediately if anything starts to hurt worse, okay? Or if you have any new or worsening symptoms.”
He sounded calm and confident, and Keisha’s pulse begin to slow.
Xander looked past Laina, pinning Keisha with his gaze. She was still spread out, her legs wedged in the V of the opening, her body curled around the car debris caused by the intruding light post, and her head nearly reaching the steering wheel. “You need help?” His mouth twitched as if trying to hold back a smile.
She became aware of the way her blouse drooped in front, probably giving him an eyeful of her boring grandma sports bra, and of her very wet, dripping hair that was straight at the bottom and wavy on top since she’d stopped the chemical straightening. She must look a laughable site with her legs dangling through the broken car door and her hands on the edge of Laina’s seat as if ready to perform some kind of strange push-ups.
Who was there to care in Forgotten anyway?
Apparently Xander, who had miraculously reappeared in her life after being missing for four and a half long years.
“I got it,” she said, pushing herself backward. Pain shot through her legs.
“I can’t move my foot,” Laina said.
Keisha was relieved when Xander took his eyes away from her and looked downward. “Let me check that out.” He bent, crowbar in hand.
Keisha quickly adjusted her top. If only she could find a way to back out . . . but no, she was very thoroughly stuck. And with Laina between her and the driver’s side door, she wasn’t going forward. Was that gas she smelled?
The sirens were close now. Took their sweet time, Keisha thought bitterly. The station was barely down the road on Main Street.
The metal of the car groaned as Xander put pressure on the crowbar. “Can you pull your foot out now?” he asked Laina.
“I think that boot might have saved you some broken bones,” Xander added. “Doesn’t look too bent.”
“My foot’s throbbing like my arm.”
“Does this hurt?” Xander moved the boot back and forth, and Laina gasped.
“Better leave it on for now,” Xander said. “Turns out that boot might be better looking than useful.”
“Like most men I meet,” Laina muttered. “Present company excepted, of course. But the boot should have helped. It’s standard issue at the hardware store, and my dad’s the owner. He insists we all wear them for safety, and if there’s one thing my dad knows, it’s safety.”
That was the moment Keisha was sure Laina would be okay, or at least make it until Doc Sayer arrived, and if anyone could save a person, it was Doc.
A police car came to a screeching halt amid a spray of gravel, and out jumped the police chief himself, Caleb McColl. “How’s she doing? Sent Levi to give the doctor an escort.”
That explained why a siren was still howling somewhere in town and the police chief was alone. McColl was a big brown-haired man with a perpetual red face. He carried a hefty, battery-operated jaws of life in his big hands, which wasn’t a surprise as the police and fire station were one and the same in Forgotten.
“She’s doing all right.” Xander adjusted the cap on his head. “Pretty sure we’ve got a few broken bones here, though, and Doc needs to check out her for bleeds.”
Caleb bent into the Volkswagen to see for himself. “You okay, Laina?”
“I’ve been better,” she replied.
“I’ll say. You must have been going ninety to hit the pole like that. Don’t you know better than to speed in the rain?”
“I swear, it wasn’t my fault, Chief. The car just sped up like the gas pedal stuck!” Laina glanced over at Keisha, whose arms were beginning to hurt. “You believe me, don’t you?”
“Sure.” But Keisha said it only to placate her. Laina was a big prankster and everyone in town knew it. Or at least anyone who’d gone to high school with her. Still, breaking laws wasn’t something she was known to do—her daddy would have tanned her hide.
Keisha gave up on getting out the way she’d come in. Twisting, she pulled herself further into the Bug until she rested one hip on the seat. Her feet were still hanging through the opening in the door, but once they got Laina out, she’d be able to pull herself past the jutting metal and into the driver’s seat and out that door.
Chief McColl nodded at her. “Good job here, Keisha. Thanks for stopping.” He straightened and eyed Xander. “Don’t I know you? Yeah, I do. You’re Jim Greenwood’s grandson, aren’t you?”
Of course the chief would recognize Xander. He’d been the chief of police for more than fifteen years and knew everyone in town, especially the youth, and Xander had grown up here, same as she had. Though Forgotten was a small town, they hadn’t run in the same circles, not in age or in economic level, at least not back then, but that wouldn’t have made a difference to the chief. Or, if anything, he would have kept a firmer eye on Xander, who’d had a lot more reason than Keisha to act out.
“Sure am.” Xander rocked back on his heels, one hand in his pocket, the other still holding onto her crowbar. His body looked exactly the same as it always had, at least from her awkward position. But he wasn’t the man she thought she’d known at Washington University in Missouri, where they’d run into each other and fallen wildly, passionately, and madly in love—or so she’d thought.
“You back here to take care of his place?” The chief asked. “I heard the city took it over since your mother doesn’t seem inclined.”
“Yeah. Sorry about the delay. I’ll get it done.”
“That’s all right. Land sakes, looking at you makes me remember your grandpa when he was young. Man, I miss that guy.”
Keisha heard the longing in Xander’s voice, and it reminded her of so many things. The day he told her about his grandfather’s heart attack for one. Or how he had looked at her when she’d talked about going home to pack a few things during spring break so they’d be ready to run away together when the semester ended.
Keisha was beginning to feel claustrophobic as another police car and a battered white van pulled into the fairground parking lot, coming around on the other side where there were no cars. When the siren cut off, they heard only the sound of the rain, and the anxiety in Keisha’s stomach cranked down a notch.
Officer Levi Hughes came hurrying over, wearing his customary cowboy hat, followed by Doc Sayer, who sported a green rain jacket with the hood pulled completely over his brown hair. He pushed through the others. “I hope you didn’t move her.”
“I believe she’s fine to move,” Xander said. “No severe neck trauma. I suspect a fracture of her right forearm and possibly a break in her right foot, though the boot might have saved her from that. I’m worried about a head trauma or internal bleeding, but she’s lucid, so I think it’s not urgent.”
Doc shined a light in Laina’s eyes, and then poked and prodded her until she started complaining. “Right,” Doc said to Xander. “I don’t know who you are, but I concur with your diagnosis.”
“This is Jim Greenwood’s grandson,” Chief McColl said. “You might have delivered him a couple dozen years back.”
Doc’s gaze ran over Xander’s face. “Probably been more than that, and he’s changed a bit since then. I don’t think his momma believed in regular medical care.”
“She couldn’t afford it,” Xander said with an easy smile. “And a midwife delivered me.”
“Sounds about right,” Doc said. “Don’t know how I’d get along without a midwife in town. Well, let’s get Laina to my van. I’ve got a bed in there I can strap her to. I’d bring it out, if it weren’t raining so hard.” He looked at Levi. “Can you come with us and drive? I’d rather her not be alone. And someone better call her family. But please tell them we don’t want them all to come. Just the parents. Their clan would fill up my whole clinic.”
“I’ll have dispatch call her parents and send them over,” said Chief McColl. “Unless you need to take her to the hospital in Panna Creek.”
“I don’t think so. But I’ll do a few tests and X-rays to make sure. Levi, can you carry her to my van?”
Levi started forward but skidded on the unpaved parking lot.
“Darn it all, Levi.” Irritation filled the chief’s voice. “How many times have I told you that cowboy boots aren’t a part of the uniform? This is why.”
“How was I to know it was going to rain?” Levi protested. “It was clear as a bell this morning when I came on shift.”
The chief snorted. “You came in before sunrise.”
“Oh, right.” Then lowering his voice, he muttered, “You weren’t supposed to be in today, I thought.”
Keisha nearly laughed at that. The chief had banned cowboy boots from the precinct after one of his officers had slipped during a foot chase in the rain, but Levi bucked the protocol so much that the whole town was aware of his little rebellion.
“Be sure you don’t ask me why you’ll be on weekends for the next month. Now move out of the way.” Chief McColl reached in to carefully scoop Laina from the car. She hissed in a sharp breath as her arm shifted but she didn’t cry out. The chief strode toward the white van with Levi and Doc hurrying after him.
Keisha struggled to pull herself through the narrow gap into the driver’s seat. The steering wheel’s current bent position wasn’t helping matters. Xander leaned the crowbar against the car and squatted, looking at her with one brow arched. Rain dripped off the brim of his hat and drops of rain beaded on his jacket, but otherwise he looked completely untouched from this interlude while she suspected that she looked like something her cat had dragged in from the neighbor’s garbage can.
“Need a hand?” he asked, grinning.
Before she could respond, he reached in and dragged her out as easily as the chief had lifted Laina, who was a good deal shorter than Keisha. His touch felt warm and familiar and wonderful. Quick tears came to her eyes, and she was grateful for the rain that masked her response.
The instant she was on her feet, he let her go. Too soon. And yet she knew it was for the best. Their story was over and done with, and his appearance in Forgotten had nothing to do with their relationship.
“Thanks,” she said, her voice almost inaudible.
He shrugged off his jacket and draped it around her shoulders. The material was light but obviously impervious to water, and the warmth of his body lingered on the lining. He now stood in a blazing white T-shirt that was quickly darkening under the onslaught of rain.
“You keep it,” she protested.
He held up a hand. “What kind of man would I be to let a woman shiver in the rain?”
Keisha stared down at the drops of rain that slicked the skin of her arms. They stood out, the color of rich honey, next to his paler ones. “My car’s just over there. I don’t need the jacket.”
“Please. I’ll get it later.” He pulled out his phone. “Is your number still the same?”
The sensation of déjà vu made her feel dizzy. He’d asked for her number when they’d run into each other that first time at Washington University. She still had the same number, but she wouldn’t tell him. She didn’t want to hope for his call or for an explanation of the past.
She didn’t respond, and the tension that had been present all along intensified. Had the world stopped moving? Why could she no longer hear the rain?
“I’ll leave the jacket at the Butter Cake Café,” she choked out. “You remember it, right?”
He nodded slowly, his gaze holding hers. Was that disappointment in those blue eyes? Good. It was better than he deserved. He was a lying, betraying jerk, and she wouldn’t ever let herself forget that.
“I gotta go. I’m going to be late.” She turned and hurried back to her car, starting it and driving away. When she glanced in the rearview mirror, he was still staring after her exactly the way he had done four years ago in St. Louis.
“Why did you come back?” she muttered.
Yes, there were harder things than being dead.