“I raised some strong kids, Jared. Stephanie is going to be fine.”
She took the seat between Troy and me and took one of our hands in each of her own. Richard took the spot on my other side and quietly asked if I wanted him to take Chris. When I shook my head, he gave me a nod that said he understood that I needed to hold my son for my sanity.
About twenty minutes went by before the elevator chimed and both Kevin and Valerie stepped out. Kevin had cleaned up a bit but I could still see traces of Stephanie’s blood on his shirt. They both walked over to where we were and asked if we’d heard anything.
When we told them no, they moved to take their seats. Kevin handed me both my phone and Steph’s and I tucked them in my pocket while murmuring my thanks.
“Angela survived all four gunshots somehow,” he told me and I felt my eyes widen in shock. He nodded his head twice. “I had the same reaction. I have no idea how. She took all four to the torso, though, and she’s in surgery, too. If she makes it through, Jared, she’ll have some hefty charges against her. She’ll be going to prison.”
“Good,” I muttered, feeling mixed emotions. I obviously didn’t want to see Angela dead but bitterness flooded my veins when I thought of a scenario where she made it and Steph didn’t. The thought of not having Stephanie was enough to make me feel lightheaded and I had to force myself to think about something else. Anything else.
“The man with her was just some user who was letting her stay at the house he was squatting in. We’ve booked him on charges of possession but it doesn’t seem like he was involved at all. He said that Angela left this morning and came back with a baby but had no idea what to do with him. We found Chris in an old, beat to hell playpen and it sounds like she put him in there and left him all day. The crying didn’t seem to faze her and the guy was so high that he didn’t care either.”
“A helpless baby was crying in the corner and he didn’t care,” I growled, mad that he didn’t help him but glad that Chris hadn’t been physically harmed. “What is wrong with people?”
Those who loved Stephanie continued to arrive. Kate and Austin both showed up at the same time, explaining that they had left all four kids with Rhea. Robin and Keon appeared shortly after, looking frantic.
When Alyssa arrived, her blue eyes were full of tears and she had wrapped her arms around herself. Elaine stood for the fourth time and embraced the young woman just as she began to sob. Stephanie’s mother whispered to her and rocked Alyssa back and forth for a few moments. Once she was calm, Alyssa moved to take a seat next to Keon.
Briana and Marco were the last to arrive. She looked like she was desperately trying to keep a brave face and he just looked ill. They had Chris’s stroller and the spare diaper bag from my place, both of which were a welcome sight.
I didn’t want to put him down but I knew he’d sleep better if I did. I placed my son into the reclined stroller and he immediately rolled to his side. He let out a slight whimper and I dug around in the diaper bag until I found one of the loveys I had asked Bri and Marco to grab from his crib. I placed it against his cheek and Chris’s little hand reached up to hold it there, calming him down instantly.
“He’s okay?” Bri asked, her voice a whisper, and I nodded in confirmation. She reached out and touched his bare foot for a second before covering him with a receiving blanket she had pulled from the diaper bag.
It had been a little more than two hours since I’d come up, three since Stephanie had been shot, when a doctor finally appeared from the back. His forehead was damp with sweat and I could tell he had changed into a fresh scrub shirt. The pants were old, though, and I caught sight of a small blood stain on his thigh.
“Family of Stephanie Gibson?”
Everyone stood and both Elaine and Richard stepped forward, the former dragging me with her as she spoke. “We’re her parents. Is she okay?”
“My name is Dr. Erickson, the general surgeon who worked on your daughter. Stephanie should be heading into post-operative care as we speak,” he replied with a tired smile. “The bullet entered through her stomach and nicked the inferior vena cava. She lost a lot of blood very quickly and had to receive a blood transfusion to replenish her platelets. I was able to remove the bullet and repair the vein. We’re lucky that it only nicked it and that she was so close to the hospital. It could have been a lot worse but she’s a trooper.”
“Oh, thank god.” A rush of air left my lungs and I let my head droop back. Someone’s hand squeezed my shoulder and I heard hysterical laughter sound from someone else. The relief in the room was palpable.
“We’ll have her moved out of recovery and into her own room soon,” Dr. Erickson was saying. “She’s going to be on some heavy pain killers for the night, though, so we don’t expect her to be ready for conversation anytime soon. I’ll have someone come let you know when she’s moved and we’ll allow you to see her in small increments.”
He turned to leave and I was suddenly engulfed in hugs. The Gibson family was certainly affectionate and I think I was embraced more in that few hour span than I had been in the previous three years combined. I wasn’t complaining, though. Being accepted into their fold and having them to lean on was a privilege.
The only people who left were Kevin, Valerie, Austin, and Kate. Keon was also able to get Robin to leave but only after threatening to call her husband. Everyone else stayed and I was glad when no one suggested that I go home and no one tried to get me to give up Chris. It may have been selfish but I needed to stay and I needed my son with me.
Alyssa fell asleep with her head on Keon’s shoulder and he and Marco conversed quietly in the dark room. Troy and Briana had gone off in search of coffee while Elaine and Richard sat quietly in the chairs next to me. I just stared at my son. He was a gift given to me, not by Angela, but by Stephanie. I didn’t have many parental memories that didn’t include that woman. I honestly had no idea how I had gone the thirty years before without loving her but the past six months had been like a dream.
The more I continued to look at his precious sleeping form, the clearer everything became. Before I could even think through what I was about to say, I turned and looked at Stephanie’s parents.
“I want to marry your daughter.”
Both of them turned their heads quickly. Elaine looked shocked but Richard just smiled, as if he had known that little fact before I had. I shook my head quickly and felt like an idiot.
“I mean, in the future. I want her in my life. I want Chris to call her mommy and I want to have more children who do the same. I love her so much.”
Richard chuckled and reached across his stunned wife’s lap so he could pat my knee. “I’m glad to hear it, son. If that’s you asking for permission, you’ve got it. We’d love nothing more than to have you and that little guy officially apart of our family.”
I smiled and glanced over at my son before meeting Richard’s eyes again. “Thank you.”
Briana and Troy returned with coffee for everyone and I sipped a cup without really tasting it. Drinking coffee in the hospital while we waited to be able to see Steph was kind of poetic. Coffee had brought us together originally and I would be eternally grateful that Java Express had a crazy long drive-thru line most of the time, forcing me to go inside to place my order.
“How long have you and Stephanie been dating?” Troy asked after about ten minutes of silence and I glanced over to look at him.
“Officially? Since March but we met in December. When she found Chris right after the new year, everything got kind of complicated until we both found our footing.”
His eyes widened and he looked between me and my sleeping son. “Wait. That’s the baby she found in the garbage?”
“Wow.” He just stared at Chris for another second before clearing his throat. “Steph always wanted a whole brood of kids but it never felt right with us. When I first met her, she was my world but then as we grew up and changed, I think we both realized that grown up Troy and Stephanie weren’t as compatible as younger Troy and Stephanie. She stopped smiling as much. We stopped joking with each other. We just… stopped. That night we saw you guys in the bar, I was so jealous. But she was smiling again.”
I didn’t get a chance to respond because a nurse appeared and called out for Stephanie’s family. We all rose from our chairs and the woman’s face blanched.
“Oh, wow. A couple of you can stay with her but I can’t have seven of you in the room at one time.”
We worked out a rotation schedule and no one protested when I said I wanted to stay in the room with her. Since I was staying, I let everyone go in first. When it was finally my turn, I pushed the stroller into the hospital room and froze.
Stephanie was lying in a hospital bed that made my strong girlfriend look so small. It was like seeing Chris in the crib for the first time- just completely jarring.
Her eyes were closed, face was pale, and she had different wires running to her arms and chest. The humming of the machine told me all I needed to know, though.
She was alive.
Elaine was still in the room so I parked Chris at the foot of the bed and moved to the side opposite of Steph’s mom. I picked up my girlfriend’s hand and was surprised at how cold it was. I held it between both of my own, trying to give her some warmth, and leaned in to press a kiss to her chin.
“You’re going to be okay, Vanilla Latte. You’re okay, Chris is okay, everything is going to be perfect.” I brought her fingertips to my lips. “I love you, Steph.”