Bring Her Home EXCERPT

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Bring Her Home EXCERPT

Chapter One

Bill Price stepped into the whirling chaos of the emergency room.

To the left, he saw a woman holding a red-faced, crying baby. The child’s eyes were pools of tears, its mouth contorted into a wailing “O.” The mother made calming shushing noises, but the baby didn’t seem to hear them. Ahead of Bill, a teenage girl with a nose ring and a neck tattoo tried to calm a man holding a bloody rag against his shaven head. The man appeared agitated, waving his free hand around as though orating to a crowd.

Bill looked to his right. He saw a small crowd gathered but no one he recognized.

He felt overwhelmed. Alone.

A nurse sat behind the admitting desk. She held a metal clipboard and wore half-moon glasses perched on the end of her nose. The glasses aged her, made her look ten years older than she probably was.

Bill approached her, a knot of tension growing in his chest.

“Excuse me,” Bill said.

“Just a minute.” The woman turned and stood up, walking away from Bill and going through a door behind her.

“Hello?” Bill said, his voice low.

He tapped his finger on the Formica desk.

She’s here. Somewhere. She’s here.

Should I just go find her?

“Hey,” he said, his voice louder.

But the nurse didn’t return. And no one else came out of the room to help him.

It felt like one of those dreams, the kind he’d been having too often lately. In the dreams, he’d open his mouth to scream but could make no sound. And the very act of trying to force words out made his throat feel as if he’d swallowed broken glass.

Bill looked around, hoping to see a familiar face. He saw only misery. The people in the room—the bleeders and the criers and the scared—were all his companions in misery.

She is here. She too is one of them. . . .

The admitting nurse appeared again. She still carried the clipboard. She went out of her way not to make eye contact with Bill. She focused on the desktop, coming over and reaching for a piece of paper.

“Excuse me,” Bill said. “I’m here because—”

“One second, hon,” she said.

The nurse lifted the paper, studying it through her glasses. Her hair was streaked with gray, her pink smock decorated with a small mustard stain.

“My daughter—,” Bill said.

The woman raised her index finger in the air, requesting silence. She turned again, disappearing back behind the door through which she’d just emerged.

“Wait,” Bill said.

But she was gone.

Bill craned his neck, rising up on tiptoes to try to see into the room. He couldn’t.

“Hello?”

No response.

“Hey!” he said, his voice rising.

The nurse stuck her head out the door, her face creased with agitation. “Sir, we’re backed up now. I’ll be right there.”

“No, no.”

“Excuse me?”

“No!”

Echoing off the walls and the tiled floor, the single word cut through the room, bringing everyone to a halt. Bill sensed their anticipation, their fear, and, yes, their glee. They might get to witness a scene.

Some guy went apeshit in the ER. . . .

The nurse stood up. She looked angry as she walked toward him.

“My daughter is here,” Bill said. “Summer Price. Summer Price is my daughter.”

And then the nurse’s features softened. She understood.

She recognized the name. Everyone in the room probably did.

“Oh,” she said, removing her glasses. “I know who to call.”

A minute passed, maybe less, and then someone came through another door and into the emergency room, a familiar face above a coat and tie.

“Mr. Price?”

Bill felt the smallest measure of relief. “Detective Hawkins,” he said. “Where is she? Where’s Summer? Someone called. They said you were here—”

Hawkins wiggled his fingers, his hand in the air. “This way, okay? This way.”

Bill followed the detective as Hawkins stepped over to a plain brown door and turned the knob. It looked like a janitor’s closet, and Bill wondered why he was being led where mops and buckets were stored.

But then he saw it was a consultation room, one of those places where doctors took families to give them bad news. Bill had been in one of them before, almost a year and a half earlier. Nothing good ever happened in one of those rooms.

He stopped in his tracks even as Hawkins reached for him, trying to guide Bill along.

“Where is she?” Bill asked. “Just tell me something.”

“Inside, Bill. Please? We can talk in there.”

“Is she alive?” Bill felt anger laced with fear building in his chest, the heat and pressure at his core like lava waiting to burst forth. He gritted his teeth. “Just tell me the truth. On the phone they said she’s alive. Is Summer alive?”

Hawkins stared directly into Bill’s eyes. “She’s alive, Bill. Summer is alive.”

Bill closed his eyes, as though bracing for a blow. He felt a slight cooling in his body, a tiny sliver of relief.

Okay, he thought. Alive. She’s alive.

“When can I see her?” he asked, opening his eyes.

“She’s alive, Bill,” Hawkins said. “But—we should talk inside.”

Chapter Two

Bill’s hands shook as he sat in the consultation room.

The space was small, confining. The papered walls were brown, earth tones, something meant to be soothing. The furniture felt stiff and unforgiving. Some well-meaning soul had placed a vase full of artificial flowers on the coffee table, an attempt to cheer the uncheerable. Bill stared at them, wishing his eyes were lasers that could destroy.

Hawkins sat down across from him. He looked to be in his early fifties, about ten years older than Bill. His salt-and-pepper hair was messy, as if he’d just come inside out of a stiff wind. He wore a sport coat and no tie, his graying chest hair reaching up from the open-neck shirt like spiders’ legs.

Bill tried to keep his voice steady, to not shout at or berate the public servant before him. “Tell me what’s going on, Detective. Tell me when I can see Summer. I want to see her.”

The room felt too familiar. Hell, it might have been the same one he sat in when Julia died. He feared he would be getting horrible news from Detective Hawkins.

“Summer is alive, but she’s critically injured. She’s been stabilized, and they’re moving her to Intensive Care. You can see her in a moment once they have her settled in up there.”

“What happened to her? How was she injured? Wait a minute—where the hell was she? She’s been gone for almost two days. Where? Tell me something.”

“They were found in Dunlap Park.” Hawkins spoke with a soothing Kentucky accent, his words rolling out like a gentle stream. Bill tried to reconcile the awful message with the sweet sound of the messenger. “Early this morning, we received an anonymous call at the station. Not a nine-one-one call—just the general line. The caller told the officer who answered that two girls could be found in Dunlap Park.”

“Dunlap Park?” Bill looked down and saw the flowers again. He lifted his head.

“Did Summer hang out there?” Hawkins asked.

“No,” Bill said before the question was even finished. “I told her to stay away from that park. You know what it’s like there.”

“I do.”

When Bill and Julia moved to town eight years earlier, brought there by Bill’s job, the park was a notorious gay cruising ground. A math teacher from Jakesville High, a meek man with a wife and two children, was arrested in a park restroom after soliciting a male undercover cop. Just a few years earlier, a Jakesville town councilman was caught there having sex with a county auditor, a woman who was not his wife.

“All I hear about these days are the drugs out there. Heroin even,” Bill said. “Right?”

“There have been some problems with that, yes. Also a homeless issue. People living in tents and other makeshift shelters. I’m not saying they are responsible for all of the crime, but it doesn’t help.”

“Some problems? No, I told Summer to never go there. Never.” Bill shifted forward in his uncomfortable chair, moving his body closer to the edge so that he almost slid onto the floor. He felt control slipping away as the angry part of him asserted itself, almost like another man who lived inside of him and jumped out in situations like the one in the hospital. “Who made this call? Do you know?”

“We don’t. It was a man, speaking with a deeper voice, possibly disguised. The call was too short to trace, and we don’t record the calls that come in on that line. But the tip proved to be accurate, so we’re going to do what we can to find out who called.”

“You haven’t told me what happened to her. What are her injuries? Hold it—are we talking about . . . Did somebody . . .”

“She’s being checked for everything, including sexual assault. There’s no obvious sign of sexual trauma, but some of her clothes were torn when she was found. We’re lucky it’s above freezing today, or exposure could have been an issue. She might have been out there for a number of hours.”

Bill folded his hands and lowered his head. He wanted to close his eyes and make the whole situation go away. And he understood he was one of a long line of people to sit in a room like this and wish more than anything they could be somewhere else.

“The problem right now is that Summer has been severely beaten. She has extensive wounds to her head and torso. And a lot of swelling. They need to do X-rays and CAT scans and all of that to see how bad it is inside. But her injuries are quite severe, and you need to brace yourself for the likelihood that she’ll need surgery and possibly extensive rehabilitation. Whoever did this wanted to hurt her, and they did. Very badly.”

“I just want to see her. I don’t want her lying somewhere alone while she goes through this. Can you do that for me, please?”

Hawkins said, “Of course. I just wanted you to understand where we stood before you saw her.”

“She’s my daughter,” Bill said. “I can handle anything that has to do with her.”

He hoped he could. He had to do it alone.

The two men stood up. Hawkins was larger than Bill, barrel-chested, but with a gentle manner that seemed in contrast with the probing intensity of his blue-gray eyes. Bill wondered if they assigned Hawkins to Summer’s case for a reason, if they believed that the detective’s soothing tones and intimidating size would somehow placate, or short of that, corral Bill and keep him calm.

Before Hawkins opened the door, Bill grabbed the detective’s arm. It felt like taking hold of a tree trunk.

“Wait a minute,” Bill said. “Them. You said they were found. You mean Summer and Haley. I didn’t think to ask, but how is Haley doing?”

Hawkins hesitated for the briefest of seconds. Then he said, “I’m sorry, Bill, but Haley was deceased at the scene. She’d been beaten more severely than Summer. Her injuries were too extensive for anyone to survive.”

The room tilted. Bill reached out and braced himself against the wall. Hawkins placed his rocklike hand on Bill’s shoulder, steadying him.

“Are you going to pass out?” he asked. “Do you want some water?”

Bill stood still for a moment. Images of the ever inseparable Haley and Summer flashed across his mind. The two skinny, blond girls running through a sprinkler on a summer day when they were ten. The two girls giggling over a silly movie when they were twelve. The two girls leaving his house together on Saturday afternoon . . .

“Her mother? She lives with her mother,” Bill asked.

“She’s been informed.” Hawkins’s voice conveyed the pain of that conversation, the necessary but awful duty he probably performed himself. “Would you like to sit down?”

He felt sick. Physically sick. His body seemed to have turned to ice.

But he shook his head. He needed to go on.

His daughter needed him. Desperately.

But before he left the room, he needed to do one thing. He took two steps to the coffee table, took hold of the offending vase, and hurled it against the wall—screaming as he did so—where it shattered into hundreds of fragments.

Bill’s breathing was fast, his heart thumping.

He really didn’t feel any better. He turned to Hawkins, who wore an impassive look on his face.

“I’m okay,” Bill said. “I want to see Summer. Now.”

Chapter Three

A doctor waited outside the door to Summer’s room.

She looked young, not much older than Summer to Bill’s eyes. She wore blue scrubs and a white lab coat. At some point in the day she’d put a pencil in her hair to hold it up in a messy bun.

“I’m Dr. Renee Davis,” she said, cutting to the chase. “Summer’s injuries are severe. She has two broken ribs, one of which punctured her lung, causing it to collapse. She also has a hairline fracture of the skull as well as a fracture of her eye socket. And a number of cuts and abrasions, some of which required stitches. She doesn’t need surgery right now, but we can’t rule that out. It’s too early to tell whether she’ll have any long-term damage from these injuries.”

An annoying beeping sound came from Dr. Davis’s pocket. She reached in and pressed a button, making it stop. But she didn’t say anything else. She looked at Bill as though she expected him to say something. He felt like an actor on a stage who didn’t know his lines.

“I don’t understand,” he said. “Long-term damage. What does that mean?”

He looked from the doctor to the detective and back again, unsure who would provide the answer.

“It means we don’t know if her vision will be affected,” Davis said. “Or if there is any brain damage. We’re encouraged because there doesn’t appear to be any bleeding or swelling in the brain. But we’ll have to watch her closely for the next forty-eight hours.”

Brain damage. Vision loss.

The nightmare might never end. It might continue on and on for the rest of Summer’s life. The very essence of who she was could be shattered. Her laugh. Her intelligence. Her sarcastic humor.

But she was alive. Bill reminded himself of that.

Life.

That mattered.

“I just want to see her,” he said. “Even if she’s not awake, I don’t want her to be alone.”

“Her injuries are quite severe,” Davis said. “I’m not going to sugarcoat this, Mr. Price, but we have to watch her very carefully. She’s gravely injured.”

“I heard that already.”

“Because of the swelling in her face, she looks . . .”

“Bad?” Bill said. “Is seeing that worse than not knowing where she was all weekend?”

“She’s not going to look like the girl who left your house two days ago,” Davis said.

Bill stepped past the doctor.

“Bill?” It was Detective Hawkins’s voice.

Bill stopped and looked at the two professionals.

Hawkins turned to Davis as though they both knew something, and then Hawkins said, “Her hands are bandaged. She had a number of injuries to them.”

“Are her hands permanently damaged?” Bill asked.

“It means she resisted, Bill,” Hawkins said, his voice tinged with a paternal pride he seemed to want Bill to experience as well. “They’re injuries consistent with someone who put up a very good fight.”

Bill knew the detective was trying to make him feel better, but the information came as no surprise. Bill already knew Summer would resist. He knew she’d fight. He’d fought with Summer enough since Julia died.

But even as a child, she’d fought. Resisting bedtimes. Resisting foods.

Stubbornly independent. Bill quickly learned one of parenting’s hardest lessons—you’re going to see yourself, warts and all, in your kid.

“I hope she kicked his nuts up into his throat,” Bill said.

The two of them just nodded, indicating agreement with the statement.

Bill said, “Doctor, the detective mentioned something about . . . checking for sexual assault. I was just . . . How long does that take to know?”

“Given her condition, we didn’t conduct a full examination. Much of it is invasive. . . . But we’ll hand everything over to the police.”

“She didn’t ever say anything, did she?” Bill asked. “Anything at all?”

Davis looked disappointed she couldn’t deliver better news to Bill. “No, she didn’t. But please let me know if you have any questions. We’ll all be keeping a close eye on her.”

“Thanks,” Bill said.

“When you come out, Bill, I’ll have some more questions for you,” Hawkins said. “I know you need to be in there now, but we have some more work to do out here.”

Bill took a deep breath, one that seemed to come from the center of his being, and pushed open the door to Summer’s room.

Chapter Four

The lights above were so bright.

Bill stood with his back to the door as it eased shut, staring at the indistinct lump beneath the covers on the bed.

A monitor beeped a steady rhythm. His daughter’s heartbeat. When Summer was a baby, Bill used to slip into the nursery and stand over the crib, just making sure her tiny heart continued to beat. She was so small then, so helpless, the life inside her seemed nearly impossible to sustain. A flickering candle in a strong wind.

Bill stepped over to the bed.

Her hands were wrapped in gauze. The blankets neatly tucked under her armpits.

Her face, though, the left side . . . Swollen like a balloon and badly bruised. Her eyes swollen as well. A gauze wrap of some kind covered the top of her head, obscuring most of Summer’s blond hair.

Bill knew he was biased—but she was a naturally beautiful girl. When she smiled, which wasn’t as often since Julia died, she lit up so much, she could probably be used as a power source. Just like her mother. Whenever Bill looked at Summer’s face, he saw Julia. Bill occasionally compared snapshots of Julia and Summer at the same age, and they were like twins. The bright blue of their eyes, the freckles that appeared when the weather turned warm.

Bill felt somewhat relieved to see there were no tubes down her throat or up her nose. She breathed on her own. An IV line dripped a clear fluid into the crook of her elbow.

Bill wanted to climb into the bed with her, to pull her close and keep her warm and safe. But he feared that placing any weight on or near her body would disturb her or cause her pain. He dragged a stool over to the side of the bed and sat down, and then placed his hand gently, ever so gently, on Summer’s left forearm, the only area of her body not covered by injuries or blankets or bandages.

He stroked the soft, downy hair, felt the smoothness of her skin. Like a baby still. She looked as vulnerable and weak as that tiny infant in her crib fifteen years ago. Her arm looked even smaller than he remembered, bony like a child’s.

“Oh, honey, what have they done to you?” he whispered. “Who did this to you?”

No response came. Summer’s lips looked parched and cracked. Painfully so. Bill checked for a pitcher of water, for a rag he could dab against her lips, but there was none. He wanted to do something. To act.

But there was nothing for him to do.

“Are you okay, Summer? I’m here. It’s Dad, and I’m going to be right here the whole time you get better.”

Bill irrationally hoped for something. A grunt. A moan. A movement. But nothing came.

He continued to stroke her arm. “I’m torn, honey. Part of me wishes your mom were here to help us through this. And part of me is glad she isn’t here to see you in this condition.”

Bill’s lower lip quivered, and he swallowed, biting back on the tears. He took several deep breaths and tried to make sense of how his life went from being so normal a few days earlier to utterly out of control and disastrous in the hospital. He looked back over the chain of events. Summer said she was going out with Haley on Saturday afternoon. Bill said yes because why wouldn’t he? The girls did everything together. Except for the accident of being born into different families, they might very well have been siblings. And then by late Saturday evening, the girls were nowhere to be found. No responses to calls or texts. No sign of either one of them.

And nothing until that morning when the police called, waking Bill out of a restless, paper-thin sleep to say Summer had been found and to get to the hospital as soon as possible.

Bill hated the helplessness he felt, the sense of being paralyzed and impotent in the face of his daughter’s injuries. In the face of what had been done to her. By someone.

Someone out there had committed this atrocity.

The door clicked open behind him. Bill didn’t turn or acknowledge whoever it was. He kept his eyes trained on Summer, the gentle rising and falling of her chest as she breathed. The horrible swelling in her face. He replayed the doctor’s words about long-term damage and wondered how anyone could recover from wounds like these. Would it be possible for her young body to heal?

And then what about the psychological scars? What if the tests they were doing for rape came back positive?

What if . . . ?

He refused to let every “what if” into his mind. One would lead to another, and then a tidal wave would roar through his brain.

“Bill?” The detective eased over and gently placed his hand on Bill’s shoulder. “I think you and I need to talk a little more.”

“Can’t we do it here?” Bill asked. “I don’t want to leave her.”

“I think it’s best if we talk in private,” Hawkins said, his homey whisper allowing no room for discussion. He knew what was best, and he intended to see it done. “A nurse is on her way in to check on Summer. We should get out of the way.”

“I want to stay close.”

“You can, bud. But let’s go find a private spot. The sooner you answer the questions I have, the better our chances of finding out who did this to Summer.”

Bill continued to stare at Summer. His only child. His baby. That vibrant, bright life.

“It won’t take long?” he asked.

“Not too long,” Hawkins said.

Bill bent down and kissed her arm. “I love you, Summer. I’ll be right back. It’s Dad.”

When he spoke those words, his daughter’s cracked lips twitched, and she made a very low, very slight groaning sound deep in her throat.

She’s in there,

Bill thought.

She’s in there, and she heard me.

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