By Geonn Cannon
A Very Lucky Woman
When Rachel next opened her eyes, her gurney was being led down a very familiar corridor. She recognized the orderly over her head, the doctor walking alongside her and the paramedic at her side. "Alex," she gasped, weakly pawing at the rail and trying to roll onto her side.
"Take it easy, Dr. Tom," the doctor said. "Just lie still."
A quick glance at the paramedic, but Rachel moved too slowly to see the responding gesture. The doctor said, "Don't worry about her right now. Okay? Just close your eyes and try to relax, okay?"
"Is she dead? Is Alex dead?"
"We don't know much at the moment," the doctor said. Why couldn't she think of the man's name? Malcolm... something. Or was it Dr. Malcolm?
"I w-want..." Her words dissolved into coughs, her entire body shaking with the effort. Her throat felt raw, her lungs tightening in a vice. She breathed deeply, pushing her head back into the pillow and squeezing her eyes shut.
"Dr. Tom, don't try to talk," Dr. Malcolm said.
It was a pointless admonition; she was already unconscious again.
Bugs and Wizell pushed their way through the charred black door, shining their flashlights across the remnants of the living room. "Fire didn't spread too far here," Bugs said, kicking the edge of the sofa. It seemed to have been smoked and charred, but not completely burnt.
"It didn't need to go looking for oxygen... Got a broken skylight here. Fire came in, took a deep breath of outside air and had a seat right where it was." Wizell said. He walked towards the center of the living room, lifting his boot when something cracked beneath it. "Broken glass on the ground... fire didn't blow this out."
"Lieutenant," Bugs said from the back hall. "Got a body."
Wizell back-tracked, joining her outside the bathroom. "Jesus," he breathed, kneeling down next to the black coal mummy. His arms and legs had pulled in towards his chest, but the wall all around was splattered with blood. "Is that a halligen over there?" he asked.
"Looks like it," Bugs replied, kneeling down and picking it up. "Blood all over all of it. Fire investigators will want to see this."
Wizell stood and said, "Yeah. Let's get the rest of this junk cleared so we can get the hell out of here."
"This is where Crawford was heading."
"Yeah," Wizell said.
"Do you think she's the one who killed this guy?"
Wizell shrugged. "Dunno. If not, I hope she got some licks in, at least."
Bugs put the halligen back where she'd found it and followed Wizell back into the living room to begin overhaul.
The hyperbaric chamber was horrendous; a tight, glass tube that made her feel as if she were on display. Doctors milled around outside, speaking to each other in quiet voices about her. Many of them, she knew, were kick-starting the rumor mill. Huge fire, one of our own is a victim, firefighter heroically saved her, etc. She would be a reluctant celebrity for the next few days, until the next big thing hit.
Every now and then during treatment, pressure built up in her ears and she plugged her nose, exhaling as hard as she could. She wiggled her jaw, staring at the ceiling through her glass tomb. Eventually, she closed her eyes, moving only to pop her ears and ignoring everything else around her. All she wanted was Alex. Why wouldn't anyone tell her where Alex was?
Back on her gurney, on her way back to her room, she kept her eyes closed. They thought she was sleeping, thought she couldn't hear them.
She only heard two words of their back-and-forth gossip.
When she was feeling up to it, Rachel sat in the wheelchair they insisted she use and rolled herself over to the window. Her thumb had been reset, her burns treated. She'd seen enough of that damn hyperbaric chamber to last a lifetime, but she still found herself short of breath even after a trip to the bathroom. Dr. Malcolm had reassured her that the symptoms would fade but, if they persisted, to let him know and they'd take care of it.
She didn't talk except to give information about her condition. A newspaper reporter called, but she hung up on him. She accepted no visitors. The people checking in on her were ghosts, memories of faces that faded in and out of the room without her paying much attention. "A very lucky woman," they all said. Lucky to be alive, lucky to have escaped without any serious injuries... very, very lucky.
Days weren't important. Nights hurt. She stared out the window, watching the blue sky and clouds and wondering why, today of all days, it wasn't raining. Her mood demanded dark rain clouds, torrential downpours, lightning filling the sky. She got up, ignoring the stupid wheelchair and walked to the chair by the window, curling up in a ball and looking out at the blasphemous sunshine outside. She hugged her knees to her chest, eyes flat, heart aching.
"Didn't you want to see me?" Alex asked.
"I couldn't bear it," Rachel said, closing her eyes and fighting her tears. "I'm sorry, I just couldn't."
"Do you want me to go?"
Rachel frowned and slowly looked over her shoulder. Alex was sitting in the doorway, sagging in a wheelchair. She was wearing a hospital gown, her left leg sticking out in front of her, sheathed in plaster. Her face was tortured, a bandage peeking out from under her bangs. Heart pounding, Rachel stepped towards her and breathed, "You're alive?"
Alex wheeled into the room, looking confused. "Yes..."
Rachel hurried over, dropping to her knees in front of the wheelchair. She reached out and flattening her palm against Alex's chest. She sobbed when she felt the steady throb of her heartbeat. "They wouldn't... No one told me what happened. They said there was a dead firefighter and I... didn't want to hear details so I stopped listening." She frowned. "W-who...?"
Alex leaned forward, pressing her forehead against Rachel's. "Murray..."
"Oh," Rachel sobbed, her voice cracking.
"No, babe, Murray is alive. But... it was touch-and-go for a while. His legs were burnt very badly, he got an infection, everything that could go wrong..." She paused and chewed her bottom lip. "He'll... be better, though. Eventually. And with enough physical therapy, he'll be back on duty before too long."
Rachel leaned down, embracing Alex and holding her as tightly as possible. Rachel spoke into Alex's shoulder. "I've been dead since I... since they said..."
"I thought you were mad at me... for bringing that man into your life, for doing this. I spent all this time downstairs, enduring all these surgeries, and all I could think about was how it didn't matter if you were mad at me. And the thing that was killing me was that even *I* thought it was all my fault... and you... I understood if you didn't want to see me again."
"It wasn't your fault," Rachel said. "And I love you so much."
Alex closed her eyes, tears dripping onto Rachel's hospital gown. "You're leaning on my leg."
"Oh, God, I'm so sorry!" Rachel laughed, released her. Wiping her cheeks, she said, "There's a lounge down the hall. I'm sure they'll let us use it if we want."
"Okay," Alex said, stroking Rachel's hair. "Do you wanna bum a ride?"
Rachel laughed. "I would love to."
"Well, then, hop on, pilgrim," Alex said. Rachel gathered her robe around herself and sat on Alex's lap, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. "Is this okay? Is your leg...?"
"My leg is fine." She stroked Rachel's back and then shifted in the seat. "Dear Lord, you're heavy."
"Wuss," Rachel said. She leaned down and nuzzled behind Alex's ear.
"Seriously, how can you weigh this much when your ass is so bony?"
Rachel nipped Alex's ear and said, "Shut up and drive, woman."
*Early the following summer...*
Rachel walked into the cabin and set down her armload of groceries on the kitchen counter. "I'm back!" she called. She pulled off her sunglasses and she leaned over the counter to scanned the living room. "Alex? Are you here?" No reply.
She put away the refrigerated groceries and grabbed two bottles of tea, carrying them with her onto the deck. She smiled when she saw Alex, stretched out on a chaise lounge wearing denim shorts and a bikini top. Her eyes were hidden by the SFD ball cap, but Rachel knew she was asleep.
Taking a moment to admire her lover, she focused on the small black knee brace wrapped around her leg. The cast had been removed months ago, but the brace would be a constant companion due to the damage Laenko's bullet had done. Barring some miracle, she would never again walk without a limp.
Rachel put the bottles down on the table, straddled Alex's lap and carefully lifted the other woman's hat. Sure enough, she was completely unconscious. Rachel smiled and kissed her lips until Alex began to respond. "Morning, sleepy-head."
"Hi," Alex said drowsily, pushing herself up in her seat. "God, how long have I been sleeping?"
"I don't know," Rachel said as she moved to her own seat. "I just got back from the store. Good sleep?"
"Mm," Alex replied and rubbed her eyes. She blinked and looked out at the bay backing up against Rachel's property. "It's just so beautiful out here." Sailboats were still bobbing back and forth, easing towards the open strait from their cozy personal docks. Rachel's own boat waiting lazily next to her dock.
"I love it here," Rachel said.
Alex glanced over and said, "So... it may be awhile before you come back to Shepherd?"
After the fire, Rachel had taken up residence in her family's cabin on Squire's Isle, a small island that was fifty miles and a ferry ride away from Shepherd. Alex had stayed in Shepherd for her rehabilitation but had driven out as soon as possible for a weekend. Since then, they'd been exchanging duties as hostess. "I don't know how long I'll be staying," Rachel said. "Honestly... I wouldn't mind staying here for... quite a while."
Alex nodded and looked down at her foot. "You mean permanently."
Rachel reached over and took Alex's hand. "Tell me something? How goes the job search back in Shepherd?"
"Subtle change of subject?" Alex asked with a rueful smile. "It's not going well. Von Elm offered me a job in arson investigation a while back, but... it would just be like showing up late to every party. Everyone else gets to have all the fun and I'm stuck with the clean-up afterwards." She rested her head on the pillow of the chaise. "But I can't fool myself. I won't be happy with *any* desk job... at least not as happy as I was being a firefighter. But with my leg... I will never be a firefighter again."
"Maybe," Rachel said.
Alex looked over. "Unless you're willing to chop off your leg and donate it to me... and even then there's a serious height consideration..."
Rachel smirked and said, "Nothing as drastic as a transplant. At least... not of a leg. What if you moved out here? The island has one fire department for both of its townships, but even the two combined equals something a whole lot smaller than Shepherd. I'm just thinking..."
Alex tilted her head. "You have that tone..."
"The tone that says you're testing the waters, holding something back to see how I feel."
Rachel smiled. "You know my tones?"
Alex shrugged and smiled proudly. "I don't know... do I?"
"I went to City Hall and asked about the fire department for the island. Now, you know there are two townships; December Harbor and Sholeh Village."
Alex scoffed. "I'm looking for a job and she's giving me geography lessons."
"Hush," Rachel said, slapping Alex's naked thigh. "Now, both towns are serviced by the same department. The Squire's Isle Fire Department. It's a mostly volunteer organization with usually a handful of officers in charge. Until recently."
"What happened recently?"
"Past couple of years, there have been a lot of job vacancies; retirements, one or two people died in the line of duty, people moving away or changing jobs... the point is, the department has had no current officers on its roster since the fire chief retired last year. The sheriff has been pulling double duty and it's starting to wear a little thin."
"Okay," Alex said, still not comprehending. "I'm just a firefighter. Even if I wanted the chief job, they couldn't give it to me for at least... I don't know, three or four years. And that's at the bare minimum."
"You don't need to be a chief," Rachel said, smiling now. "If you take the lieutenant's test and pass it, you'll be an officer. If you're an officer in this department, you're the high head on the totem pole. You'll basically be the acting chief."
Alex frowned. "Really?"
"Babe... you're a terrific firefighter. You know your stuff. There's a chance we could arrange it so that you don't have to go into fires, so your knee won't be an issue. The sheriff would be so happy to hand over the reins he would probably give you a 'get out of jail free' card for coming to his rescue. And, in a couple of years, you take the captain's test, then the chief's... just to make it official."
"So I would be living on the island?"
Alex bit her lip and looked out at the bay. "Wow," she whispered.
"You don't have to say yes. I'm just... it was an option that was out there and I... took the initiative. If you tell me to butt out, I'll butt out, but..."
"Thank you," Alex said. "You... it means so much to me that you would do this."
Rachel smiled and took Alex's hand. "So you'll think about it?"
"No. It's decided." She smiled and said, "I'll talk to the mayor and the sheriff tomorrow before my ferry."
"You're still leaving tomorrow?"
Alex nodded. "Yeah, babe. I'm still warming the bench back at Shepherd. But don't worry... now I'll be using the time to pack my things and tie up loose ends. Next time I come back here, I'll be looking for a place to stay." She raised her eyebrows and smirked at Rachel. "Any ideas?"
Rachel poked her chin towards the door. "I have a fold-out couch in the living room."
"Can I use it?"
"You could..." Rachel said. "But you won't."
Alex grinned and pulled Rachel to her, moving aside to let her into the chaise. They slid together, side-to-side, kissing softly. "I love you," Alex said, fingertips lightly touching the feathered hair off Rachel's temple.
"I love you, too," Rachel replied, closing her eyes and resting her head on Alex's chest. Alex stroked her hand up and down Rachel's back, feeling the warmth of the other woman.
They'd walked through fire together. Braved a madman in a burning apartment and they had come out of it. Not unscathed, but not broken either. When she exhaled, her breath ruffled Rachel's hair. When Rachel exhaled, Alex could feel the warmth spread across her chest like a wave. She could still hear Heather Riley saying that her fiancé hadn't understood, could never understand, what she went through. Alex knew that no one else on Earth would ever understand her better than Rachel Tom.
She lifted her left arm and turned it, eyeing the scars that were now barely visible below her wrist. The result of Martin Lancaster's first fire, the small embers that had seared her skin and brought Rachel Tom into her life. She hated the man, but owed him the greatest gift she'd ever been given. She kissed the top of Rachel's head and again whispered, "I love you."
Rachel was asleep and didn't reply, but her fingertips tightened slightly against Alex's stomach.
In a while, Rachel would wake up and slap Alex's shoulder for letting her sleep so long. They would go inside, Rachel would cook something and they would retire to the sofa for TV or a movie. A while after that, they would go to bed and eventually sleep. But there was time for that later. For now, the sun was still low in the sky, the sailboats were still waving to and fro on the horizon and there was a beautiful woman tucked against her side, sleeping peacefully.
Later, they could deal with later.
For right now, Alex had everything she wanted or needed within arm's length. She closed her eyes and put her head back, falling asleep with a smile tugging at the corners of her lips.
She was a very lucky woman.
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