For Better or Worse (Chapter Seven, page 1 of 1)

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On Saturday Carmen left Alex with Jonathan and Destiny, heading for the old house. She had left the paint and equipment in the living room, so it wouldn’t take long to set up. Whatever she didn’t get done today would have to be done by a hired crew later. They couldn’t wait much longer. The carpeting was waiting on the painting.
Alex and Jonathan planned to grill steaks for lunch. She smiled, thinking how nice it was to have a family. She had always imagined how it would be, but there was no way she could have imagined how wonderful it actually was. They were all so fortunate to have each other.
She stepped through the gate and closed it, looking around again to make sure the buffalo were not close. They had never given any indication that they would bother anyone, but it was a precaution she always took.
Nearing the old house, she spotted an unfamiliar truck parked beside the road. Extracting the cell phone from its sheath, she dialed Alex. He picked it up on the first ring.

“Do you miss me already?” His voice was full of humor.
“Always,” she answered immediately. “Did you see that blue truck parked beside the road?”
She turned around, walking backwards as she watched the house. He stepped out on the front porch, phone to his ear as his gaze probed through the trees.
“I don’t think you can see it from there,” she said, turning around. “I wonder if it’s hunters again.”
She continued walking toward the house. No one was in sight. Maybe they were hunting up the road.
Alex spoke again. “Well, maybe I should call a game warden. They aren’t supposed to be hunting on private land without permission, and ours is posted anyway.” He hesitated. “Maybe you should . . .” His phone cut out for a moment. It did that sometimes near the old house.
She glanced back but couldn’t see him. Keeping the phone to her ear, she continued walking. When she reached the porch and stepped up on it, she paused, studying a muddy track.
“That’s strange,” she said to no one in particular.
“What?” He was back again and his voice sounded concerned.
“Someone has been on the porch. Maybe they came here to ask for permission to hunt.”
The screen door complained as she opened it and she paused as she reached for the door knob. “I left it unlocked so I could . . .”
The words froze in her mouth as the door opened. The red headed man stood in front of her, lust in his eyes and smile.
“Well, I was beginning to think you weren’t going to make it,” he said.
Carmen, get out of there!” Alex barked.
Before she recovered from the shock, the man knocked the phone from her hand and grabbed her arm, jerking her toward him. He cut her scream short with a wet kiss planted over her lips. She struggled in his strong arms. His body smelled of sweat and liquor. She managed to squirm free of his arms for a second and started to scream, but he clamped a grimy hand over her mouth. She jerked an elbow back into his stomach and heard the breath escape him in a groan. In that moment, she squirmed from his hands and screamed again, scrambling to reach the cell phone on the floor.
Through the window she saw Alex vault the fence and hit the ground running. No point in wasting energy screaming now. She dodged and rolled as the man reached for her again. He was big, but he was slow. Maybe she could hold him off until Alex arrived. After several more grabs, he finally caught her arm. She stepped toward him and brought her knee up into his groin. It was a mistake. The little time gained was offset by the anger it aroused. His face twisted in rage as he reached for her again. She stepped back to avoid his hand and tripped over one of the paint cans, falling and sliding across the floor.
The next few minutes happened so fast that she barely had time to think, much less react.
The man grabbed her ankle and she kicked him with her other foot. He let go and as she turned, she saw something glint in his hand. At the same time boots ran across the porch. Alex! Finally.
The man waved a knife at her, an evil smile on his lips. Her mouth was so dry it was hard to speak, but she managed.
“Alex!” she screamed. “He has a knife!”
Time slowed down, and it was as if everything was in slow motion. The man lumbered toward the door. Whether he was trying to escape or attack Alex was unclear, but Alex reached the door at the same time the man did.
The man’s arm came back and then forward in a jab. Alex looked stunned as the knife sank into his midsection.
Alex!” Carmen choked out in a voice that didn’t sound like her own. Shocked and horrified, she scrambled to rise from the floor.
The man jerked the knife out and darted around Alex and out the door. He never glanced back.
Alex stood clutching his stomach, his stunned gaze locked on his hands, as if unable to comprehend what had happened.
Seconds ticked by as she stared at him in shocked silence. Her stomach felt as if it were trying to crawl out her mouth. Finally something clicked inside of her, forcing her into action.
She grabbed her cell phone from the floor and dialed 911. Shock or maybe fear put the words in her mouth when the woman answered.
“My husband has just been stabbed,” she said in a voice that was too calm to be her own. She provided the requested information, explained that she was going to assist him and then put the telephone on the floor, still open.
Alex sank to his knees, coughing. That was the end of her stunned calm.
She lunged from the floor and ran to his side.
“Tell me what to do,” she begged as she helped him lay down.
He tried to talk and coughed bright red foam. The hands that still covered the entry sight were bloody.
“Alex,” she moaned. “I don’t know what to do. Please don’t . . .” What was she thinking? Of course he was going to do everything in his power to stay alive. The rest was up to her. She staved off panic and tried to organize her thoughts. When a person was bleeding, you applied pressure. She covered his hands with hers and looked into his eyes.
“Let me put pressure on it. Help is on the way.”
The dark eyes implored her, possibly searching for some kind of assurance that he wasn’t going to die. Slowly he relinquished the care of the wound to her. She put the heel of her hand on the place where blood was coming out and used her other hand to press down hard. He winced and she resisted the urge to let up on it.
“I love you,” she said, looking into his eyes again. “You’re going to be alright. Hang on.”
In rural areas, first responders were often neighbors, which was the fortunate case with them. Within minutes a truck plunged down the hill and into the yard, stopping in a spray of gravel in front of the house. Two men got out and one reached in the back, picking up a case. Another vehicle came down the hill, a red flashing light attached to the top.
“The first responders are here,” she said with relief. His face was pale and his eyes looked confused. “Hang on sweetheart. You’re going to be alright,” she said again. If only she could believe that. Every ounce of willpower went into fending off hysteria.
“Please God,” she whispered. “Don’t let him die.”
The first responders took over and most of the time she could only see parts of him as they worked over him. They stayed in remote contact with someone while they worked, attaching an IV and doing something with the knife wound. She held on to his hand, as if keeping him from falling off a cliff. His gaze held hers and he tried to talk, but he only managed to cough.
“Don’t try to talk, darling.”
He squeezed her hand, his eyes desperately trying to tell her something. His lips were a bluish color. Gradually his grip weakened and then his eyes closed. She held his limp hand and fought back panic.
One of the paramedics glanced up. “He’s still alive. It looks like one of his lungs has collapsed. We’ve got a helicopter on the way. You said he was stabbed?”
She nodded mutely.
The yard was filling up with vehicles as two police cars and finally an ambulance arrived.
“Mrs. Barnett, are you injured?”
Her attention was diverted momentarily to the officer who was watching her with concern. She shook her head, her focus back on Alex.
“He didn’t hurt me. I think he was going to, but Alex came in and then . . .” Nausea swept over her. “He stabbed Alex,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion. “He just shoved the knife in his stomach and jerked it out.”
“Do you know who the man was?”
“I don’t know. I saw him a few times. Alex thought he was an admirer. He had red hair. He was waiting inside the house. I saw a blue truck up the road and I thought – maybe a hunter. I opened the door and there he was.”
The detached information sounded like she was hysterical, but she felt calm.
“Where was the truck?”
“Out there,” she pointed at the road and for the first time realized her hands were bloody. She opened them in front of her face and stared at the blood. Tears welled up in her eyes, blurring the shaking hands.
“Oh God, Alex,” she groaned. Specks of light flashed in her eyes and then her knees gave way. A steady throbbing filled her ears. As she sank to the floor, a strong hand gripped her arm.
“Please don’t let him die,” she begged tearfully.
She was lifted to her feet and Bill spoke to her in a calm voice.
“The chopper is here now. I’ll take you to the hospital,”
She wiped her eyes with her shirtsleeve and stared up at him.
“Where are Jonathan and Destiny?”
“Katie is with them. I heard about it on the scanner and we came over here as fast as we could.”
This couldn’t be happening. Not to Alex. He could handle anything that came at him. He was so strong. The scene flashed through her mind again: The man coming at him, the quick stab, the stunned look of surprise, and then Alex sinking to the floor. Not more than a few minutes could have elapsed, and yet there he lay – possibly dying. She followed the gurney out and watched as they lifted it into the helicopter. The throbbing sound increased and the chopper lifted from the ground. It swung around, nose down and then darted off across the field and up into the sky. Gradually it faded into the distance, taking her heart with it.
“Is this yours, Mrs. Barnett?”
She turned as an officer shoved a cell phone at her.
“Yes. Thank you.”
“I know it’s a bad time, but could I get you to answer a few questions?”
“I told you all I know.”
“Could you describe him?”
“I don’t know. He was tall and kind of heavy set. His hand was dirty and he smelled – body odor and liquor. He had red hair and drove a blue truck – I think maybe an old Ford, but it might have been a Chevy. It all happened so fast.”
“Can you talk to her later?” Bill asked the officer. “She’s pretty distracted now and I need to get her to the hospital.”
He nodded. “I have enough information for right now.”
At the house, she washed her hands, watching the water turn red and swirl down the drain. It was his blood . . . his life. With shaking hands, she changed her blouse. Tucking some tissues into her purse, she joined Bill and Katie in the living room. Grandma & Grandpa Reynolds had already picked up Destiny. Bill dropped Katie and Jonathan off at their house before he took Carmen to the hospital.
It was surreal – quiet, as if the volume had been turned down. All the way to the hospital she kept rehashing the attack and their last moments together. Would she ever see him again – alive? Why was the man at the house? Had she interrupted him stealing something? But no, he indicated he had been waiting for her. Why? How could he have known she was going to be painting in the house that morning? The worst thought of all was that Alex had been trying to help her. If she hadn’t screamed, maybe the man would have taken what he wanted and left. The idea was nauseating.
Alex was still in surgery when they arrived. Carmen filled out all the necessary paperwork and then settled down for a long wait.
Another agonizing hour passed before a doctor finally came out to talk to them. The light green scrubs made his long features look sallow and the pale blue eyes that fixed on her seemed more tired than interested. His voice was a monotone as he informed Carmen about Alex’s condition.
Alex came through the surgery fine. The knife had punctured his right lung, deflating it. It was inflated now and working properly. The doctor pulled at the mask that hung below his mouth, and for the first time, sounded interested.
“It was a good thing he was wearing that big belt buckle. The knife scraped across it, deflecting it away from his heart.”
Then he fell back into his monotone and said Alex had been in shock from blood loss when they got him to the hospital. As if it were no particular problem, he said they had lost vital signs in flight a couple times. At Carmen’s startled gasp, he said he didn’t think that was an issue because they brought him back quickly. He concluded by saying that the next 36 hours would be the most critical. They were giving him antibiotics to prevent pneumonia.
At that point, the doctor paused, watching her as though waiting for a reaction. He continued.
“We’ll be taking him to ICU in a few minutes and it will be awhile before we know anything.”
“Can I see him?” Carmen asked.
“A nurse will take you in to see him for a few minutes. He needs to rest. Remember, being unconscious doesn’t mean he can’t hear what you say.”
After asking if there were any more questions, he turned and left the room. This might be a common situation for him, but it was horrifying for her. She felt like someone had reached inside of her and tore her heart out. Alex might die – technically, had died. She sat up straight and forced the thought from her mind. He might live. He was strong and healthy. She had to keep thinking positively.
The nurse arrived after a few minutes and led her in to see Alex. He was sprouting tubes from every orifice - and then some. He looked pale, but at least his lips looked normal. A monitor measured every heartbeat, and a perpetual sphygmometer encircled his arm. Fluid dripped steadily from an IV bag above his head.
Carmen repeated one thing over and over in her mind: He’s still alive.

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