An excerpt from…
A contemporary romance by Parker de Vesci
More than anything, Kelsey was afraid that Thomas was going to propose. They’d been dating for a year and a half, seriously for half. Over the last few weeks, he’d been hinting. He’d mentioned ‘their future’, went on about how much his parents had loved her and how she fit right into the family, and he’d even ‘borrowed’ one of her rings to show his sister. “She’d go nuts for this,” Thomas had said.
Kelsey swallowed hard, sitting across the table from him. Table for two. Candlelight. Wine.
“Have I ever told you how much you mean to me?” Thomas murmured, reaching across, taking her hand.
Panic. She wasn’t ready. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath. “I don’t feel so well.”
His brow wrinkled in concern. “What is it?”
“My stomach,” she said. It was twisting in knots.
He gestured for the waiter to bring her some water, watched her carefully as she sipped. “Would you like to go home?”
Kelsey could hear the deep reluctance in his voice, and she felt bad. She knew how much Thomas cared for her. He was a great guy, too. He was… a catch, as her friend Jo had put it. Handsome. Steady job. Stable personality. Supportive of her career choices, despite the distance. He was nice. Sometimes he was funny. He was decent in bed. And he would probably make a great father some day. A great husband, too. Only….
“…Yes. Please.” Kelsey nodded, gathering up her purse. “I just want to go home.”
Without hesitation, Thomas left some money to cover the meal they’d ordered but not yet been served. He put one arm around Kelsey as they left, his concern evident. He opened the restaurant door for her, and then her car door. As they began the drive home, he was quiet, but he kept glancing at her, looking worried.
Kelsey sunk back into the seat and closed her eyes, disturbed by her own feelings. She couldn’t figure out why she felt the way she did, but the feeling was there, despite whatever conclusions her logical mind might make. Maybe I’m just not ready, she thought. Maybe more time was the answer. She would just have to explain to Thomas, and he would understand. They’d take it slowly. It would be OK.
She knew all these things.
But inside, an urge was rising in her. She wanted to run, as far and as fast as she could go. The only thing she could think of was this desperate need to break things off with Thomas. To be done with him. To be free.
The urge was so strong that she spent long moments trying to find the words, the explanation. Any way to do it without hurting him more than she needed to.
As the car rolled down the long, straight, dark highway, she fought for those words like a drowning woman trying to break to the surface.
Cold sunk through Kelsey like a dagger ripping right into her bones. Above her, the sky was black and jagged with something like lightning—stars with permanent streaked paths, like they had all started to fall from the sky and then had been frozen in time. There was a noise in her head, a whoom, whoom, whoom. And cold, everywhere.
The ground below her was a slab of ice.
She tried to get up and couldn’t. Tried to remember what had happened but couldn’t. Had the chopper crashed? Had she made an error? Was it her fault? Or had they been shot from the sky? Where was the rest of her team? Had they gone down in enemy territory?
She needed to move.
But the cold. The cold. Shivers ran through her. She became aware of a wetness, a stickiness that coated her. And the streaked stars… she could only see them with one eye.
Kelsey grunted hard as she curled in on herself, determined to get up. She wasn’t feeling the pain so much as the wrongness. She trembled violently as she lifted her head, but she had to get moving. It was then that she caught a glimpse of her body, and she knew she wasn’t going anywhere.
Blood everywhere, black and shining, soaking through her clothes. Expanding into the dirt around her. Exposed bone on her leg, which didn’t matter so much, because she would be dead long before that was a problem. She cried out in frustration and anger.
To end like this. Bleeding out in a far away desert. Would they even recover her body?
“Easy, easy.” Someone dropped to his knees before her, touching her shoulder, guiding her back down. A flurry of rustling as he peeled his jacket and stuffed it against her stomach. Peeled his shirt and pressed it to the side of her face that seemed to be gone.
Kelsey collapsed into the dirt, letting him. The cold was sharp now, like pain. She shivered so much that she expected to see the puffs of her breath where she panted out, but there was nothing. It had been warm, hadn’t it?
Holding the jacket and shirt firmly to her, he leaned over her, his voice soothing. “It’s OK. Don’t be afraid.”
But she was. With one eye, she gazed up at his face that hung over hers, lit softly by moonlight and star-streaks. His hair was golden, his eyes unknowable but caught with specks of light. A face beautiful in that she felt she knew it instantly, though she also knew she didn’t.
“W-who are you?” she whispered.
“I’m Gabriel,” he said. “Don’t worry. I’ll stay with you until they come.”
Kelsey blinked. Her eyelid was beginning to drag downward, but she fought against it. “Are you an angel?”
His eyebrows lifted and he laughed, but there was sadness in it. So much sadness. “…No. I’m a real person. The ambulance is on the way.”
Kelsey frowned as much as she could. That made no sense. There were no ambulances. “I’m dying.” The words were weak, draining out of her like blood.
“Fight it,” he said. “You have to fight. Help is on the way.”
“S—so c-cold.” She was shivering.
“I know.” His voice soothed like warm water.
“I know.” He leaned closer to her, his hands still pressing the jacket and shirt against her.
“S—Stay with me…?” She felt herself fading slowly away, and more than anything, she didn’t want to be alone.
“I won’t leave you,” Gabriel said. “I promise.”
Kelsey fought and fought to keep her eye open, but it wouldn’t listen to her.
Calmly, quietly, the doctor explained everything. The head-on crash. The seven emergency surgeries to repair the damage inside her. Her leg in a cast for a long time. They’d been able to reconstruct the bones of her face, but the eye… the eye was gone.
Kelsey stopped listening. In all of that, the only thing she’d heard was that she would never fly again. Chopper pilots needed two eyes. Simple fact.
The hospital psychologist that had come along with the doctor suggested that they give her some time. They did. And Kelsey lay there alone with her thoughts, alone with her whole world bleeding out. She was too empty to cry.
It was a couple of hours before she remembered about Thomas. When the nurse came in to check her stats, she asked, “The man in the car with me…. Thomas…?”
The nurse glanced at the door, then back at her. “Alive,” she said, offering a reassuring look. “Let me get the doctor.”
“No.” Kelsey stopped her. “Just tell me. Please?”
Again the nurse glanced at the door. She sighed and walked to the bedside, keeping her voice low. “He was hurt badly,” she said. “Spinal injury. Too soon to know the extent.”
The nurse shook her head. “Not yet. But he will be.”
“He’s not… in a coma or something?”
She shook her head, patting Kelsey’s hand. “No, honey. I think it’s the pain medicine.”
Kelsey tried to nod, but it made her feel like someone had hit her in the head with a hammer. She swallowed against the surge of nausea that accompanied the pain. “When can I see him?”
The nurse clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. “Not yet. Not until the doctor clears one or the other of you for getting out of bed.” She looked Kelsey up and down. “I’m sorry, hun, but that might take a while.”
Kelsey could only see the cast around her leg, hanging above the bed. Bandages on her hands. IVs jabbing into her arms and the cannula line dropping away under her chin and across her chest. She felt like she’d been caught by a plastic spider.
She lifted one arm and managed to touch her chest, which was cold and lumpy, aching deeply.
“Ice packs,” the nurse murmured, leaning over her. “Let’s take those off for a while.” She slipped the packs away. “Are you in any pain?”
Kelsey had never been in so much pain. “I’m OK.” She wanted time to think, and she didn’t want her thoughts to be clouded by morphine.
But thinking… an entire afternoon of thinking… only led to one conclusion.
I’ll never fly again.
That evening, her CO and some of the guys from her air unit came to see her. She tried to smile, but she wasn’t really up for the visit yet. And, as good as some of them were at playing poker, they totally failed to hide their shock at the looks of her.
“My eye is gone,” she told them quietly. “I’m done.”
None of them tried to tell her any different. That was one thing she loved them for. They had an unspoken no bullshit policy. So they just nodded, their eyes averted, or squeezed her hand, or said, “That really sucks.”
After a few moments, the others left her with her CO. Major Huachuco was a small man, in his fifties, and his face was lined with wrinkles that all his soldiers had put there. As he stared down at her, Kelsey thought there was a new wrinkle in the middle of his forehead with her name on it.
He didn’t ask why her family wasn’t there or if he should call them, because he already knew that the Corp was her family. More than blood, Huachuco was her father. More than blood, the men who had just left were her brothers. That was the only family that Kelsey claimed.
“…Doctor says this is going to take a while,” he finally said, his voice deep and gravelly.
Kelsey knew what he was thinking. She wanted to cut straight past the bullshit and get it out there, but she didn’t know if she was ready yet. “Yes, Major,” she said, closing her eye, swallowing. “My reenlistment…”
“Still sitting on my desk.” He nodded. She’d signed it and given it to him on Friday, right before her leave started.
She met his eyes. “…I don’t want to push pencils, sir.”
Again, he nodded. “I understand.”
“I…” She trailed off. Everything was swirling downward into some giant void.
“Brown,” he sat carefully on the side of the bed, covered her bandaged hand with his own. “Take a while to think about this. I can stall with the paperwork. Don’t decide anything, yet.”
She didn’t have an answer, so it wasn’t hard to agree with him. “Yes, sir. I could use a little while to clear my head.”
“Take as long as you need.”
She offered a bandaged salute as he left.
Alone with her thoughts, Kelsey went round and round. Not because the answer wasn’t there. It was always there, from the very beginning. Major Huachuco knew it, and she knew it. But… neither of them liked it.
The nurse came in and gave her something to help her sleep, though Kelsey didn’t want to. Before long, it dragged her back into the seemingly endless abyss of black.
The morning was long and full of discomfort. Everything ached. The incessant checking of vitals and changing IVs, taking blood for labs, adjusting ice packs—all that—was clearly some form of primitive torture. It hardly compared to the catheter, though, which was advanced torture.
She’d had a phone call from Jo, who was flying in later that day. She’d taken emergency leave, hopped a flight, and was already halfway there from Brooklyn.
Kelsey didn’t want to see Jo, though she longed for the comfort of her friend. She could already imagine the look on Jo’s face when she walked into the room. The shared sense of loss. The sinking feeling that Jo would experience on her behalf, when she realized…. Kelsey didn’t want any of that. She wanted to disappear from the face of the earth, instead. She wished the crash would have killed her.
But no. She was alive. The universe had chewed her up and spit her out, left her lame and mangled. She lay in bed, her jaw working, her one eye fixed on the opposite pale green wall. Rage was growing hotter inside her.
Lunch was pureed, tasteless, and pointless. She didn’t eat.
After lunch, someone stood in the doorway of her room. Her one eye was on the left, and the door was on the right, so she didn’t notice him at first. Not until he cleared his throat. Then she turned her face to him, frowning.
“Is it… alright if I come in?” he asked, his voice familiar and soothing.
Kelsey frowned at him, wondering where she knew him from. He wasn’t a Marine. His hair was too long, for one. Golden, slightly curled, it fell around his shoulders softly. He didn’t stand like a Marine, either, though he appeared to be quite fit. Too relaxed in the shoulders. And of course, civilian clothes. A henley over jeans. Hiking boots.
“You might not remember me,” he said, shifting, though he didn’t come any closer. “We met the night of the accident. My name’s—”
“Gabriel,” she said as it came to her all at once along with the image of his face, the streaked sky, a memory of cold.
He stood in the doorway and said nothing.
Kelsey waded through the memories, then returned to the present. Her voice was soft. “Come in.”
Gabriel came to the chair that one of the Marines had left near the edge of the bed. He sat down.
Kelsey turned her face toward him and waited for him to ask the inevitable, but he didn’t. She supposed that he could see for himself how she was. Finally, she was the one who spoke. “Thank you for staying with me.”
He nodded. There was a little dent in his forehead as he looked at her.
“Am I that scary?” she asked.
His eyes moved over her. They were clear blue, lined in dark lashes. He had a kind face, a nice jawline. No wonder she had thought him an angel. When his eyes finally returned to her bruised face, wandered over the bandages her head was wound in, and found her one good eye, he nodded. “You look like you’ve been through hell.”
“So it would seem,” she murmured. The exchange, though it wasn’t much, had tired her. Her eyelid felt heavy and tried to pull itself shut. She blinked herself awake.
“Go ahead,” Gabriel said. “Rest.”
She didn’t want to. She didn’t want him to leave.
“I’ll stay,” he said softly, as if he could sense it in her. “I’ll just watch over you for a while. Close your eyes. Rest.”
And then, like it was a command she simply had to follow, she rested.
When Kelsey awoke, it was to the sound of whispered voices, murmured voices. She opened her eye and took a moment to focus.
Jo was there, standing over Gabriel, who was giving up his chair. They were engaged in quiet introductions.
“They just changed her IV antibiotics about fifteen minutes ago,” Gabriel was saying, glancing at the stand. “The nurse said her vitals looked good.”
“Jo?” Kelsey’s voice was rough with dryness.
Jo had the most gorgeous smile of anyone Kelsey had ever known, but today it was tainted with sadness. She tried to blink away the tears that were forming, but it didn’t work. She stepped to the side of the bed and leaned over Kelsey to give her a hug—too careful, too gentle. Then she stood back and put her hands flat over her mouth, blinking.
Kelsey tried to ignore the emotion that was about to break loose. Her one eye roamed Jo up and down. Jo was wearing her service uniform. Her long blonde hair was pulled into a tight bun. But she had the quality of a movie star dressed up for a war movie. “You look great,” Kelsey drawled, keeping it light.
“Oh,” Jo said in a tiny voice. It was all she could say.
Behind her, Kelsey saw Gabriel shift his weight toward the door. He caught her eye and raised one hand. “I’ll check in on you later.” And then he left.
Jo sat down in the chair at the edge of the bed. She took Kelsey’s hand in hers, and she bent forward, touching her forehead to the back of Kelsey’s hand. She cried quietly there, and Kelsey swallowed, but didn’t cry. She felt like Jo’s tears were her own.
Continue reading Kelsey and Gabriel’s story in Crashing Down