The water was still running a deep scarlet as he tried to wash the blood from his hands. It was ingrained in the grooves of his cuticles, under his nails, in the folds of his fingerprints and DNA. Relief swept through him as he watched the water start to run clean. He cupped his hands beneath the stream and splashed it on his face and over his short-cropped black hair.
He looked at himself in the cracked and peeling mirror. He noticed the crow’s feet next to the neon blue eyes – a description given by his twin sister – and the silver flecks along the temples. He knew that the weariness didn’t limit itself to his face. His body was tired. His knee was hurting like a sonofabitch. His back burned with the effort to stand up straight. His ribs were tender, making breathing an added strain. His eyes were bloodshot with the lack of sleep – but they’ll have to hold on for a little while longer.
He suppressed a groan as someone knocked on the bathroom door. “Doc? You okay?”
“I’m good. Be out in a minute.” His voice emerged as a husky rasp and he realized how tired he was.
He dried his hands and face on a paper towel and left the sanctuary of the bathroom. His phoned twanged as he made his way to the tiny kitchen to get a much-needed cup of coffee. A rare smile turned his stern mouth soft when he saw Riley’s face pop up on the screen. He put his cup on the table and sat down in the rickety chair as he answered the video-call.
“Daddy!” The high – pitched voice called through the miles that separated them.
“Hey, Ri-Bear! I miss you so much!” He felt his heart constrict at the sight of her little face. She had his eyes and black hair, but her mother’s softer, heart-shaped face, and cupid-bowed lips that always had a ready smile. Looking at her sparkling eyes, he could almost feel her arms squeezing his neck.
“I miss you too, Daddy.”
“What did you do in school today?” He felt the weariness wash off him as he listened to her rambling on about wild animals and farm animals and sea life. And then came a question he wasn’t sure how to answer.
“Will you come to my daddy-daughter dance, Daddy?” Her face was so hopeful, so trusting.
“It depends on when it is, honey. Remember, I’m far away and I can’t promise to be home soon, Ri-Bear.”
His mom’s face joined Riley’s on the screen. “Hey, baby.”
“Hi, mom. Is everything okay? Is there anything you need?” She took care of Riley when he was away.
“We’re okay, Jarr. Just the usual. Oh, and Riley will be needing a few things for summer soon.”
“Okay, mama. You have that card I gave you. Get whatever you guys need. When is this daddy-daughter dance thing?”
“It’s the last Friday of the term.” Two weeks, he made a mental note.
“No promises, okay, Ri-bear?”
“Okay, Daddy, I love you.”
“Like stars in the sky, Ri-bear,” he looked up at the knock on the door. His trusted, wiry field nurse Turner Finch was trying to get his attention.
“Incoming, doc. Not sounding good.” Jarrod nodded.
“Gotta go, Ri-bear. Take care of Ganna and be good.”
“Bye, Daddy.” She logged off and he slipped the phone into his pocket as he gulped down his cold coffee, knowing that sleep will not be seeing him for a few hours yet.
Twelve hours later he rolled onto his cot, exhausted beyond belief. He sighed as he tried to clear his mind enough so that he could get as much sleep as time would allow.
What brought him to this blasted – to – smithereens – little town in the middle of nowhere? What made him decide to leave his four-year-old daughter with his elderly mother in Wichita, Kansas? What made him push his body through rubble-strewn buildings to get to victims trapped so that they could get the help they needed?
One name flared through his mind as he drifted off into oblivion.