The crackle on the two-way radio gave EMT Anne Lundstrom a two-second warning that someone's life teetered on death's fine edge. The dispatch blared through the ambulance speaker and her stomach tightened, instinct telling her to brace herself.
"King One-Two, we have a fifty-two-year-old female complaining of chest pains. Respond to 2135 Franklin Avenue."
Anne made a wry face in response to the fire department dispatcher's voice. She tossed her half-eaten hamburger into its wrapper in her lap and reached for her seat belt as her partner, Gary Muller, popped the rig into drive.
"Try not to kill us," Anne said as she grabbed the dash. She didn't know what she hated more, lurching in the passenger seat or manning the wheel herself as they careened through Minneapolis's congested inner city.
"Hey, gimme a break. Last time, I only skimmed off one layer of paint." Gary grinned, but his hands whitened on the steering wheel.
Anne grimaced against the scream of the siren. More often than not, instead of parting traffic, the sound panicked drivers who slammed on their brakes, or worse, jerked into the empty lane. As the rig flew through a red light, Anne tensed, praying silently for the oncoming traffic to yield.
Her hamburger tumbled onto the floorboards. She kicked it aside and planted her foot. "Franklin. It had to be Franklin Avenue."
Mercifully, Gary stayed silent.
She didn't have to wonder what they'd find in Minneapolis's seedier part of town. Probably a dilapidated two-story Victorian, with paint peeling off once beautiful columns, a boarded-up window, and a sagging, rotted porch. The front yard would be littered with battered furniture, rusty car parts, broken glass, cigarette butts, and even used syringes. Inside, amid the acrid smells of moldy food and the lingering smoke of illegal substances, she'd find a crying, dirty child or two. Of course, the grandmother, the only sane person in the dwelling, would be stretched out on the floor, stroked out or otherwise "fixin' to die."
Her pessimism had Anne kneading a pulsing vein in her temple.
"You've been on three days straight." Gary shot her a quick look. "You should take a sick day."
"It's not that."
Gary dodged a minivan full of children whose driver apparently hadn't yet heard their siren. "I know."
Anne bristled as they barreled into the inner recesses of the city. Obviously her years spent walking this neighborhood hadn't dissolved from her system. She noted a few changes in the landscape-a new liquor store and the burned shell of a grocery store, plywood nailed to its windows. They passed Woodrow Wilson High. A few teens played hoops in the yard, adeptly skirting weeds that infiltrated the crumbling asphalt.
"We're at Twenty-second," Anne said, without looking at the signs. "Next street up, take a right."
Gary slowed and took the corner on all four wheels. Despite the warning siren, they could be disrupting a game of street hockey. She wished that were the worst they were disrupting. Summer calls made her instinctively wary. Too many kids with empty time on their hands. More likely they'd be upsetting a car jacking or a drug deal.
She winced again at her cynicism. She did need a break. Unfortunately, she had bills to pay and a semester of school to finish. Only then could she chuck this job and move away-far, far away-from inner city Minneapolis and its ugliness. Maybe then she'd find a measure of peace and safety, things she'd been praying for, relentlessly, for nearly fifteen years.
She long ago stopped expecting God to answer.
"Three minutes, twenty-three seconds." Gary stated their response time as he braked next to a quaint bungalow with a fresh coat of baby blue paint. He parked behind a beat-up green pickup with all its windows intact. "Go in. I'll get the jump kit."
Anne blew out a breath, reined in her prejudice, and leaped from the cab. A patient inside needed her help and she'd do well to focus on that.
The inner door hung open. Anne rapped on the screen door. "Hello? Emergency medical personnel. Anyone here?"
She waited three seconds, then jerked the door open. The family room buzzed with an eerie silence. Two brown tweed sofas, worn but clean, claimed much of the room, as did a sprawling spider plant hanging from a green macramé planter in the far corner. Anne called again, then stepped onto the green shag carpet. Strange that no one had come to meet them. Who had placed the call? Perhaps the woman had called in her own symptoms.
Anne ventured farther, toward a short hallway. "Hello?" No reply, save her own thundering heartbeat. The aroma of supper cooking filled the house with an unusual hominess. Her half-empty stomach twisted. She couldn't remember the last time she'd eaten a home-cooked meal.
Gary pounded up the porch steps. "Where is she?"
"I'm not sure." Anne grasped a wobbly door handle with several coats of paint and pushed the door open.
A large Native American woman, dressed elegantly in a lavender dress and cream-colored hose, lay on the bed. Her long gray hair fanned out over a floral pillow, but her pale face evidenced significant pain. Considering her size, she was primed for an angina attack. Anne's attention went to the linebacker-sized man holding a compress to the women's forehead.
"I'm an emergency medical technician with the Minneapolis Fire Department." Anne directed her words to him, seeking consent. "Can I help?"
He stared at her, alarm glinting in his light brown eyes, a color unusual for someone of his Native American ancestry. A line of sweat dotted the man's forehead against his coal black hair, pulled into a ponytail. Anne recognized the early signs of psychogenic shock and braced herself for refusal. It wasn't uncommon for family members to fear medical professionals or even faint at the sight of a loved one undergoing trauma. Especially in this part of town.
He raised his hand. "Stay back." His voice seemed pained.
Anne nodded and motioned for Gary to halt. Her partner's breath streamed over her neck. She couldn't place it, but something felt . . . wrong. Indeed, across from her, the man's broad chest under a gray Army T-shirt rose and fell, as if fighting hidden emotions. The chiseled fierceness in his face and his bunched neck muscles told her he bridled a power that could easily explode from those tree-limb arms. Then he reached out to her with a piercing look, and she couldn't help but think he hoped to send her some sort of extrasensory message.
"My name's Anne. I just want to help." She took a step closer. "I'm not going to hurt her."
Then the woman's eyes shot open. The fear in their molasses brown depths froze Anne to the spot. The woman shook her head, her face twisted in panic. Or pain.
Anne unsnapped her belt kit and pulled out a pair of rubber gloves. "I want to check your heart, okay?"
Anne glanced at the man, who started to shake his head. She clenched her jaw. They didn't have time to coddle him. Judging by the patient's shallow, rapid breathing, the woman needed medical attention-now. Anne snapped on her gloves and removed her stethoscope from around her neck. Now that she'd identified herself, she had a legal responsibility to assist. Anne took another step, trying to communicate calm.
"No!" The man's deep cry made the flimsy walls shudder.
The woman started up on her elbows. Anne ignored the man and rushed to the patient, reeled in by her grimace of pain. But the woman's wretched gaze fixed past Anne, over her shoulder. Anne turned, and her heart caught in her throat.
"Anthony, no-," the old woman pleaded.
Anne couldn't wrench her stare off the scratched silver pistol nor the way it trembled in the teen's hand as he kicked shut the bedroom door. She fought her racing heartbeat. This wasn't the first handgun she'd faced.
"Calm down," she said, forcing her voice steady. She assessed his appearance and dread twisted her stomach at what she saw-fast breathing, sweat running over his wide cheekbones, and large, dark pupils in eyes that darted nervously around the room. She'd seen the signs of a drug user before, and this one was higher than the IDS building. She glanced at Gary, who stood frozen in the doorway. Get out of here! "This isn't about you," she whispered. "I'm just here to help this patient."
The teen twitched and fixed his weapon on Anne's chest, his eyes wide. Anne knew her words hadn't registered.
Although it happened in split seconds, a year later, Anne remembered the next moments in glacier-flow slowness, in jerks and agonizing sensory bites.
"No!" A voice behind her thundered.
She froze. The teen cursed; the gun shook. A blur scraped across Anne's peripheral.
Gunshot. The sound shattered Anne's soul.
The man tackled the teen just as pain exploded through Anne's body, in crescendo with a heart-ripping scream.
Anne hit the floor.
Then the cold wash of darkness.
~ ~ ~
"'When peace like a river attendeth my way . . .'"
Singing wrestled Anne back to the living into the claws of searing agony. Her eyes burned under a bright light, and a blood-pressure cuff squeezed her arm. "What-?"
Gary's face came into view. "Stay still, Anne. You've been shot, and I'm taking your vitals before we transport you."
Her body felt on fire. "I hurt, Gary." She heard voices and the muffle of song and turned her head to search. Behind her, two uniforms subdued the teen, now cuffed and facedown on the carpet. His slurred curse words punched the air. She strained to focus on the undertone of hymn, softly sung by a rich tenor.
"Ninety-five over 60, we need to get her in-quickly." Gary muttered his assessment of her blood pressure, but Anne heard it and tensed.
"How badly am I hurt?"
Gary didn't answer. He opened her shirtsleeve and wrapped a tourniquet around her upper arm to establish an infusion line. Anne watched him work, recognizing the beads of perspiration over his pursed lips and the furrow in his brow as worry. His dark eyes occasionally went to hers, and she read in them everything she needed to know and more.
Panic pooled bitterness in her chest. Oh, God, I'm not ready! There's so much more I wanted to do with my life! If only her parents could see her now. She always knew, deep in her heart, she'd die a gunshot victim in the Phillips neighborhood. The irony made her groan.
The singing seemed closer. "'. . . tho' trials should come, let this blest assurance control . . .'"
Gary held the drip bag over her head, and the cool liquid surged into her veins. The edge of pain softened. "Who's singing?"
Gary glanced over his shoulder. "Your hero."
Her eyelids bobbed. "Hero?"
"The man who tackled the shooter. The bullet nearly hit you chest high."
"Where am I hit?" It felt like her entire body had been shredded.
"Lower right. You'll never need an appendectomy." Gary attempted a smile but failed. She knew how he felt. If he'd entered the room first, she'd be the one administering the IV line and fighting guilt.
"She ready to move?" The gruff bass of fellow EMT David Nelson came from above her. "We're transporting Mrs. Peters right now."
"The woman with angina?" Her speech was thickening.
David squatted and touched her arm. "Someone wants to say hello."
He moved, and in his place appeared "her hero." His hand found hers and squeezed gently. But his eyes-honey brown, sweet with hope, and undulating with worry-fixed on her. She felt them reach out, along with his song, to comfort her. Ridiculous as that thought seemed, it made tears spring to her eyes. She smiled meekly. "You tried to warn me, didn't you?"
"You were awfully determined to help my mother." He brushed her hair from her forehead. His whisper-soft touch made her throat thick. "I'm sorry I didn't move quicker."
She must be drugged, Anne thought, for her eyes were glued to his face, taking in the stubble of dark whiskers along his jawline, his lustrous black hair, a small, intriguing round scar on his upper right cheekbone. Close up, a very masculine power radiated from him, mixing confusingly with the tender concern on his face. Topped off by a white smile, he'd turned . . . charmingly attractive.
She gulped. "You were singing?"
He rubbed her hand with his thumb. "It's a hymn. Can I sing it for you?"
She nodded as Gary moved into her line of vision. "No more talking." Her partner held up a non-rebreather oxygen mask and worked it over her head. The cold breath of 100 percent oxygen filled her nose and mouth. She closed her eyes.
She heard the tones of a low, melodic tenor and, though it was muffled under the hiss of the oxygen tank and the rattle of the stretcher, the effect seeped into her bones. It followed her as she was loaded onto the stretcher and toted out to the rig. She wasn't sure if he rode with her or if it was the memory of his voice, but even against the backdrop of the whining siren, she clung to his song, taking it with her as she sank into dark oblivion.
"For me be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live.
If Jordon above me shall roll.
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life,
Thou shalt whisper thy peace to my soul. "