Authors: Amanda Meredith
Tags: #Fiction, #Retail, #Romance, #Suspense, #Thrillers
I was following covert tracking procedures. Run three steps, stop, listen, observe. Step lightly. Stay silent. Blend into surroundings. Mentally catalog the trail. Crushed bluebells inside the tree line. Bent and broken branches fifty feet in. Soggy footprints, one booted, one bare in the mud, only a few minutes old. I was getting closer.
He was dragging her. I could tell by the trail I was following. There would be two sets of footprints, running unevenly then an indention for a knee or hand. One set of footprints would get deeper with drag marks obscuring the prints.
Then two footprints again. Jackson would drag her when she fell, not allowing her to get up. My stomach churned, the husband breaking through my focus. The pace he was forcing her into would be difficult for a normal person let alone a woman pregnant with twins.
weren’t far ahead of me now. Libby wouldn’t be able to move much faster and Jackson would be moving slower and tiring. The undergrowth was thick in this part of the woods, making it even harder to move. I was trying to move fast without making any noise. When I caught up with them, I didn’t want Jackson to know it. I took my rifle off my back, carrying it at ready.
I heard branches snapping ahead of me with a few muffled moans coming from the other side of the hill. They were close. I moved slower now, careful to stay silent. I could hear Libby now, trying to yell. She
must be gagged. I heard the sick sound of skin being slapped and her weak whimper. I crept over the hill, raising my rifle to look down the scope.
Libby was kneeling, her breath coming out in shallow gasps of white steam. Her hands
had been tied but the knot had come loose. One hand braced on the ground while the other, the rope still on her wrist, clenched over her belly. A piece of her dress had been tied around her face, gagging her.
There was a trail of blood from a gash over her eyebrow. Her bare arms were already bruising; marks, the shape of fingers, marred her skin from her wrist to her shoulder. The husband in me was warring with the soldier as I tried to maintain control. I forced myself to look away from her. The marine won out as I used the scope to scan the area.
He was crouched behind a tree on the other side of Libby. His sallow face looked yellow in the darkness. He must’ve sensed that I was there because his lip suddenly curled up, showing his stained teeth. He held a jagged knife in his hand. I locked my sights between his eyes. He saw me before I could pull the trigger.
Before my mind could register him moving, he had hurled the knife at me. It hit me in my left shoulder, knocking me back.
But not before I managed to fire. As I went down, I could see the bullet rip through the outside of his thigh.
I hit the ground and heard Libby screaming as she struggled to get to me. She yanked the gag out of her mouth as she stumbled to where
I’d fallen. Grimacing in pain, I reached over and pulled the knife from my shoulder. I screamed as blood gushed from the wound. Libby slapped her hands over it as I tried to sit up. Jackson was not lying where I’d seen him go down. On the verge of blacking out, I fumbled for my Beretta.
“Looking for this?” Jackson’s voice was dripping with hate. He held up my gun, just as my hand felt it
wasn’t against my hip. He limped towards us, aiming the gun at my head.
“Stupid bitch,” he growled, kicking Libby in the side. She rolled away from me and lay still. I lunged for Jackson but he slammed his boot into my bloodied shoulder, pinning me to the ground. I screamed as he dug his heel into the wound, stars exploding in my vision.
“You thought if you pretended I wasn’t hunting you down, that I’d disappear?” He asked, spittle dripping from his mouth. “I told you I’d kill you,” He hissed as he ran a finger down the barrel of the gun. Then he looked towards Libby, who still hadn’t moved. “But I did say I’d kill her first so you could watch, didn’t I?” He kicked me in the face and I heard the snap of my nose breaking before blood began to gush, blocking my vision.
Jackson limped down the hill toward Libby, blood pumping from the hole in his leg. She was moaning now, clutching at her stomach.
“You think getting married changed what you are?” He asked, crouching down beside her. “You’re nothing but a whore, just like your Momma.” He laughed, nearly falling backwards from the effort.
I could hear sirens in the distance. John Paul had reached the house. If I could distract Jackson for a few more minutes, maybe
they’d get here in time. My vision was blurring as I rolled over, blood gushing from my shoulder and nose. Jackson looked towards me and laughed even harder.
“You think that stupid bastard is
gonna save you boy?” He yelled, standing up and walking towards me. I stood up, shaky as the world around me wobbled. I’d been injured before and had never felt like this. “Feeling strange, boy?” He asked with a sneer. “That knife was special just for you. See I knew you had training, that you wouldn’t be easy to take down. You’d need a little something extra from my friends to make sure you stayed down.” I wobbled as he laughed, nearly falling again. My vision was going white as I tried to focus on him.
“Why?” Libby’s moan had Jackson turning away from me. I took advantage of the distraction and lunged for him but
he’d seen me coming and swung back, hitting me in the chest with his elbow. I flew backwards, the breath knocked out of me. Jackson was laughing again as he turned back to Libby.
“Why?” He asked, spitting on her. “Why? Because she was a whore,” he screamed. “And I’m going to kill that bastard pig that made her one as soon as I’m done with you!”
“Don’t you touch her,” I gasped, spitting blood from my mouth as I spoke. I could tell my ribs were broken. “I’ll kill you, you sick, son of a bitch,” I planted my feet, trying to stay balanced as the world spun. Jackson just smiled, his blackened teeth dancing across my vision. He stepped towards me, pointing the gun at my head.
ain’t gonna kill me, boy,” he sneered, his finger sliding over the trigger.
“No, he won’t,” Libby shouted. She was standing behind him, the rifle raised and pointed at him. “But I will.” He swung the gun around but Libby was quicker as she pulled the trigger. The top of his head exploded in a spray of blood and brains before his body crumpled to the ground. “Go to hell where you belong.” Libby whispered before her legs gave out and she collapsed on the soggy forest floor.
Trying to see through the blinding white that was taking over my field of vision, I crawled towards her. Bile rose in my throat as I felt the warm wet of blood beneath my hands. Libby was holding her stomach, sobbing between guttural screams. I reached her, barely able to see as I ran my hands over her body.
“The babies,” She screamed as her back arched. “Something’s wrong.”
“We have to get to the hospital,” I tried lifting her but collapsed, the pain overwhelming me.
“Cole, don’t move,” she grabbed for my hand as I knelt beside her. The world was spinning around me. My body was going numb. Libby gasped, her eyes rolling back.
“Libby, stay with me!” Her eyes snapped open as a feral scream ripped from her, bursting the blood vessels in her eyes. Bright red blood pooled under her legs, soaking her dress. I knew what that blood meant. I was losing them. Her body suddenly went limp.
“No, Libby!” Blood was spreading on the ground as I forced an eyelid open. Her eyes
were rolled back in her head, the whites of her eyes now bright red. I heard the buzz of ATV’s coming closer, searching for us. I scrambled over Jackson’s bloody body and pried my gun from his lifeless hand. I fired into the air until the trigger was clicking beneath my fingers. I heard the engines coming closer now. I crawled back to Libby, checking her pulse again. It was weak beneath my fingers.
John Paul reached us first, jumping off his ATV and running towards us. More deputies arrived as well as EMT’s. The white haze was blocking my vision as I felt someone lay me down.
“The babies,” I mumbled as hands worked on me. “Libby,”
“It’s going to be okay,” I heard John Paul speak as if he was calling to me down a narrow tunnel. “Chopper’s coming.”
“He’s going to kill us all,” I mumbled, blinded now. “The knife, he put venom on it.” My head rolled to the side, I couldn’t control it anymore.
John Paul’s voice was far away now.
“From the snakes,” I
couldn’t feel my body anymore. The endless white filled my mind as I felt myself slipping into nothingness.
Dammit!” John Paul’s voice was a distant echo in my head. “I’m losing him! Light the flares Mitch! Tell the hospital to have anti-venom ready. All of it!” I felt myself being moved as the sound of a chopper drew closer. The sound of the blades matching the pounding in my ears as my heart struggled to beat.
“Libby,” I groaned, unable to see or hear anything. I knew
he’d killed us. That Libby, our babies wouldn’t make it. That I wouldn’t make it. We were too far from the hospital and too late for it to matter. Despair tore through me and I willingly sank into the abyss.
My eyelids felt heavy as I struggled to open them. I managed to blink them open but closed them quickly when I could only see blackness. I could hear monitors near my head. I knew where I was; it
wasn’t the first time I’d woken up to that sound. I forced myself to open my eyes again and I turned my head towards the sound of the machines. I could make out the blurry shapes of them in the light of the screens.
I wasn’t blind. My hospital room was dark, the only light coming from the monitors next to me. I opened my eyes fully, some of the fear leaving me. I flexed my fingers and toes, testing for injuries. My limbs were sore and stiff but relatively pain-free. I tried to move my arm but the stabbing pain in my shoulder had me laying still. I sighed, regretting that as well, as pain rocketed through my ribcage.
The memories came flooding back with the pain, slicing through my mind. I remembered the fear that threatened to overtake me when
I’d discovered Libby missing. I remembered how hard it was to push that fear down and become the soldier. I remembered the knife piercing my shoulder and the wave of fire that surged through my blood from the venom. I could clearly see Libby, though my eyesight had been fading, standing with the rifle aimed.
I had always been the one to protect her, keep her safe… but not this time. Libby had saved my life.
She’d been the one to pull the trigger, ending the life of the man that had tortured her and murdered her mother. She had been the one to pay the ultimate sacrifice. I shook my head as tears stung my eyes. I heard the door creak open and reached up with my good arm to wipe my face.
“Look who finally decided to join us,” John Paul whispered from the doorway. I squinted, the light from the hallway stinging my eyes. He walked in, closing the door nearly shut behind him. The light
wasn’t as harsh and I could see him fully now. “They told me you’d be waking up soon. Told me to keep the lights off when I checked on you. Sensitivity to light, they said. A side effect from the snake venom.” I grunted, trying to sit up. I hissed as more pain shot through my shoulder and chest. “Easy, son,” John Paul chided, quickly using the bed controls to lift it to a sitting position.
“Water,” I whispered, my voice croaking with disuse. He grabbed the cup from the bedside table and helped bring the straw to my lips.
“Damn good thing you managed to warn me about that venom before you passed out,” He set the cup back down before sitting in the chair next to me. “Had enough venom in your system to kill four men and from three different kinds of snakes to boot. Doctors don’t know how you survived long enough to get to the hospital.”
“How long have I been out?” I mumbled.
“You’ve been unconscious for a week. They took the ventilator out day before yesterday. They were worried you’d go into a coma too but then you started trying to breathe on your own…”
I interrupted. “You mean that bastard is still alive?” Visions of Jackson being kept alive on life-support with half his brain missing, made me shiver.
John Paul asked, confusion filling his features before he shook his. “Hell no. Libby shot that son-of-a-bitch deader than a doornail, God bless her. No chance in hell he would’ve survived that. She blew half his head clean off.” He gave me a faint smile. “I meant Libby.”
“Libby’s alive?” I shouted, and then winced from the pain in my chest.
“Of course she’s alive. Libby’s a fighter. You didn’t think she’d made it?” John Paul forced me to sit back against the pillows as I shook my head.
“There was so much blood,” I whispered, tears falling freely now. “She wasn’t moving, barely had a pulse.”
“You were half dead yourself, chock full of snake venom and here you are,” John Paul reassured me. I closed my eyes and wept, the relief so vast it was nearly painful.
“I need to see her.”
“She’s in the ICU. The doctor will have to check you out before you go anywhere, Cole.” I laid my head back on the pillows, so many thoughts rushing through my head that it hurt to try and sort them out. “You sit tight, and I mean that, son.” John Paul pointed a threatening finger at me and I nodded. “I’ll go get the doc.” I briefly considered mutiny but decided that trying to get out of the bed while he was gone would probably be a bad idea. John Paul returned quickly with the doctor.
“Are you Libby’s doctor too?” I asked as he checked my vitals.
“No, Mr. Andrews. I’m just the attending doctor on the recovery floor. Dr. Crawford is taking care of your wife.” I nodded, glad that Libby wasn’t in the hands of a stranger. I moved mechanically as he helped me sit up, breathing deeply as waves of dizziness swamped over me. “I’m okay with you going up to see your wife, Mr. Andrews, provided that you stay in the wheelchair at all times. And only for an hour.” He shook his head when I began to protest at that. “Mr. Andrews, let me make it very clear to you. You nearly died and are not yet fully recovered. You would be no help to your wife if you set back your own recovery.” I sighed but nodded. He was right, though I hated to admit it.
I let them help me into the wheelchair, feeling how weak I was. John Paul pushed me down the hallway into the large elevator. When the doors opened, he wheeled me down a quiet hallway into a small room with a couch and a few chairs. John Paul lowered the lights when I squinted. The room was empty and I looked at John Paul for an explanation for not taking me to see Libby.
The door opened behind us and John Paul just smiled as he turned me around. Two nurses were pulling in some carts as I craned my head to see around them. My heart stopped when I saw the plastic cradles lined up next to each other. I read the cards on the cradles as John Paul squeezed my good shoulder.
Andrews Boy, Andrews Girl
. I struggled for my breath as I saw them squirming, trying to wrestle out of their tightly swaddled blankets.
“I thought they didn’t make it,” I choked out the words as I struggled to stand, to go to them.
“Sit down,” John Paul ordered, coming to stand in front of me. “You’d fall over if you tried.” He carefully reached into a cradle and lifted my daughter while the nurse brought over my son. They cradled them in my arms, though John Paul helped support my wounded one. They were so small. I stared in wonder at what I thought I had lost.
“Say hello to your children,” John Paul murmured. “They’re strong like their parents. Your son,” he pointed toward to my right arm. “Was born thirty seconds before your daughter,” he gestured to my other arm. “They both came out hollering.
Heard them all the way down the hall. Best sound I ever heard in my life.” He wiped a tear away with his free hand. “Both perfectly healthy, a little underweight but as you can see, they’ve caught up fast.” I watched my babies sleeping for a few more minutes until the nurses took them away.
“They need to be fed and changed,”
she explained. “But you can come back and hold them after you’ve rested.” I nodded, not happy that my arms had shook while I’d held them. I wouldn’t let myself stay weak. I had to be strong for my children, for Libby. I watched the nurses wheel them away and sighed before looking back at John Paul.
“I need to see Libby.”