I watched as Stephanie hugged both detectives, thanking them profusely. I bounced Chris, trying to calm him down, but I knew he needed to get out of the chaos and into a more sedate environment before he’d even consider it.
Stephanie was saying something when officers yelled off to the side. I watched Angela fall to the ground. As the officers and EMTs began to rush towards her, a bad feeling settled in my gut. I was about to voice my concerns when Angela jumped up with a gun in her hand and pointed it right at Stephanie.
That moment was absolutely the hardest moment of my life. Every cell inside of me screamed to protect the people I loved. That meant I wanted to shove Stephanie to the side, out of the way, and to duck behind a car with Chris.
I couldn’t do both.
I did what I knew I had to do and turned my body so Chris was shielded. When the gunshots went off, I tensed up and waited. Once I heard the police yell that the suspect was detained, I turned back around and looked.
At first I thought that Angela hadn’t been able to get a shot off. She was the only person down and Stephanie looked fine when I ran my eyes across her body. As I was sweeping my gaze back up, I did a double take.
Blood was soaking the bottom of her shirt.
She turned her head to look at me and her expression was extremely confused for a second. Her hand slowly came up to touch where the blood was and she suddenly teetered. I rushed forward as she began to collapse but Kevin beat me to it, laying her gently on the ground while yelling for the paramedics.
“Steph? Sweetheart?” I fell to my knees next to her with Chris still crying in my arms. She turned those pale blue eyes on me and blinked several times. “Stay awake, Steph. Stay with me.”
“She’s losing blood too fast,” Kevin said, his voice frantic as he covered her wound with his hand to try and staunch the bleeding. “Damn it.”
Stephanie held her bloody hand up and looked at it curiously before it fell limply to her side. Her eyes locked on mine again. Paramedics grabbed me by the shoulders to move me but I couldn’t leave her.
She mumbled something but the only thing I could make out was my name. Her eyes slowly started to close and I shook my head.
“No, baby. You have to stay awake. Stay awake, Stephanie!”
“Jared, you need to let them work.” Valerie pulled me away and I watched in horror as they lifted my girlfriend onto a stretcher. They yelled something about an IV, blood loss, and a heartrate as they began to wheel her to an ambulance and I followed automatically. A hand on my arm stopped me.
“Another ambulance is coming to transport you guys to the hospital,” Valerie told me in a gentle voice. “We’re going to the same place they’re taking Steph.”
The realization of what had just happened hit me hard. An hour ago I thought I might lose my son and now I had him back but could possibly lose the love of my life. I’d traded one horror for another.
“Breathe,” Valerie commanded. Her hand rubbed across my back and I sucked in a deep breath. Chris was still crying in my arms and I ripped my eyes away from where the ambulance had been to stare at my son.
“Sorry, buddy,” I whispered hoarsely. “You’re okay. Stephy is going to be okay. We’re all fine.” I pulled him to my chest and pressed my lips to the top of his head while trying to keep my emotions in check.
Another ambulance, the third of the night, showed up and I stepped up inside with Chris still in my arms. Both Val and Kevin told me that they’d meet us at the hospital and all I could do was nod. The doors were closed and we started moving as someone began examining Christopher.
“Besides needing a bath, a new diaper, and some food, he seems okay,” the EMT said as she sat back in the chair across from us. “They’ll be able to get you supplies at the hospital. They might want to admit him but I doubt it.”
I nodded and hugged my son to my chest. His cries had subsided for the most part but the pitiful whimpers were killing me. I knew he had to be starving and his diaper was disgusting, basically useless at that point. But he was okay. That was what mattered.
We arrived at the hospital, a different one than where I’d visited Chris all those months before, and a small team of people met us at the back of the ambulance. A doctor tried to direct me into a curtained-off area but I shook my head.
“My girlfriend was brought here. She was shot. How is she?”
“They just took her up to surgery, Mr. Hart,” the young doctor told me with an apologetic look on his face. I tightened my hold on my son, trying to find some comfort, and let them usher me into the exam room.
I sat on a hospital bed with Chris in my lap as he was given a more thorough examination. His screams picked back up again and he clung to my shirt desperately, as if he was afraid that he was going to be taken from me again.
“He looks okay,” the doctor told me as a nurse appeared with a basin of soapy water. “Perhaps slightly dehydrated so I want to get some formula into him. He’s going to need a bath but I know you want to get upstairs.”
I nodded gratefully and took the washcloth from the nurse. I ran it over Chris’s hair, torso, and legs. When I had to pry my shirt out of his grip so I could lay him down, his cries intensified until he was screaming bloody murder.
We got the soiled diaper off and my chest hurt when I saw how red his skin was underneath. We cleaned him off the best we could and the doctor gave me some diaper rash cream to slather over him. Once he had the clean diaper on and a pediatric hospital gown, the only clean clothing they could find for him, I was given a two-ounce bottle of ready-made formula. Chris saw it and cried a bit louder and whimpered even after it was in his mouth and he was sucking it down.
“There are several more two ounce bottles in this bag,” the nurse explained as she put a bag on the bed next to me. “Along with another gown, some more ointment, and some diapers. He’s eating that so fast that he’ll likely spit most of it up. The next bottle should go down a bit easier when he’s not as frantic. I’ll take you upstairs and you can call down here if you need anything more, Mr. Hart.”
I thanked her, took the bag with Chris in one arm, and followed her to the elevator. She pressed the button for the second floor, wished me luck, and stepped back. When the elevator chimed to let me know we had made it to the surgical floor, I moved quickly towards the desk were a woman was sitting.
“Any news on Stephanie Gibson?”
“Are you family, sir?” she asked with a curious look on her face. I bounced on my feet when Chris started to whimper again around the bottle.
“I’m her boyfriend. Is she going to be okay?”
She raised her eyebrows and glanced around me. “Are you sure? Because that’s the line that gentleman used.”
I turned, extremely confused, and my eyes quickly settled on a big man that I recognized from the bar all those weeks before. He saw me at the same time and stood up.
“Shit, I’m sorry.” He moved forward to the desk and shook his head. “My name was listed as her emergency contact and I didn’t think they’d tell me anything if I mentioned we had broken up.” He looked at the woman and shook his head. “I’m her ex-boyfriend. This guy right here is really her boyfriend.”
She looked between us both suspiciously before glancing at her computer and then giving me an apologetic look. “I don’t have any updates. She hasn’t been back there long. A doctor should come out to update you when we know more.”
“Okay.” I swallowed and took a deep breath. “I don’t have my phone but I need to figure out some way to let her family know what’s going on. Do you have a computer I can use?” I knew I could at least send off an email to Marco and go from there.
“I did it,” Troy said quietly from beside me. “Richard and Elaine are on their way. Do you want me to call anyone for you?”
I shook my head and walked over to the chairs he had been sitting in before and took a seat two down from him. “I don’t think so.”
I looked down at Chris and took the empty bottle from him. I tossed a cloth the nurse had given me over my shoulder and put him upright to burp him. He whimpered slightly and I knew that he had a stomachache from eating too fast. Sure enough, he spit up thirty seconds later on a large belch, and I cleaned him up before getting a few more burps out of him.
He was exhausted, though. He drank the second bottle a lot slower and the moment it was gone, he turned his face so it was hidden in the crook of my elbow and passed out. I dropped my head into the palm of my free hand and sighed.
“What the hell happened?”
Looking up at Troy, I shook my head instead of answering. I couldn’t without losing the composure I’d managed to keep ahold of so far. I looked down at my son and cleared my throat.
“Can you text Briana for me?”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. “Yeah, of course.”
I rattled off a message for him to send to her, asking her or Marco to run by my place to get a few things. Troy had just sent it when Elaine and Richard arrived. Elaine’s face was tear-stained and she darted across the room when she saw Troy and I sitting there.
“Is he okay?” she asked through her tears as she hugged me to her, squishing Chris between us. He was so tired that it didn’t even faze him. When she let us go, she reached out and ran her hand through his hair.
“He was dirty and hungry but she didn’t hurt him.” I choked on the last word. She hadn’t hurt him thankfully but she had hurt someone else. Elaine seemed to know where my thoughts went because she reached up and cupped my cheek while giving me a teary smile.