He gave her a doubtful look. “Yesterday you told Brody you’d talk to the prosecutor.”
“That’ll take an hour, at best. Look, I’m still tired, but the aches and stiffness are better every day.” She wasn’t a hundred percent, but two days of rest had helped.
“You’ll keep the alarm set?”
Hannah raised her right hand. “I promise, and I know where the gun safe is.”
“All right.” Grant nodded. “Brody said he’ll be around all week.”
There was something about Brody McNamara. Something she couldn’t quite define, but when they were in the same room, she was acutely aware of him in an irritating and consistent way that made her simultaneously want to avoid—and seek—his company. So what? She was attracted to him. She could fight that off. She’d been battling her feelings her whole life, though lately, her hold on them seemed tenuous.
Her gaze drifted to the rural highway stretching out in front of the truck.
She wasn’t staying in Scarlet Falls. She’d get that clearance from the neurologist. Next week she was off to London. Royce wouldn’t need to handle the Tate deal. She’d worked for it, and she was going to make sure it was hers.
The sound of Grant shifting into park startled her. She looked through the windshield at the familiar one-story brick building of the nursing home where their father lived. Sunday afternoons were prime visiting hours, and the parking lot was full.
They went through the lobby and signed in at the reception desk. Hannah’s heart slid into overdrive. Under her silk sweater, sweat broke out at the base of her spine. The hospital smell made her queasy.
At the nurses’ station, a woman in lavender scrubs greeted them with a smile. “Good morning, Mr. Barrett.”
“Morning, Maria.” Grant introduced Hannah. “How is he today?”
Her smiled turned sad. “About the same.”
“Thanks.” With his hand on her elbow, Grant steered Hannah down a long hall covered in flat-napped gray carpet. A tiny woman hunched over a walker shuffled toward them.
“Good morning, Mrs. Henry,” Grant said.
“Morning, handsome.” She flashed him a perfect set of dentures. “Did you come to break me out of this place?”
“Name the day.” He grinned back at her.
Hannah laughed, the humor easing her nerves. They turned left into the acute-care wing. If the Colonel had been ambulatory, his dementia would have put him in the secure Alzheimer’s ward. But his physical limitations ensured he couldn’t wander.
Twenty feet from his open doorway, she stopped and took a deep breath. “Any advice?”
“First of all, relax. It’ll be all right.” Grant reached out and rubbed her bicep.
“The last time I was here, the visit didn’t go well. He got really angry.” Shame flooded her. She hadn’t known what to do when the Colonel’s temper had exploded.
“I know,” he said. “I don’t want you to be shocked at his appearance. He’s fading. Honestly, I think it’s a blessing. A man like him shouldn’t have to live like this. If he wasn’t the toughest, most stubborn man on the planet, he wouldn’t still be here.”
Hannah swallowed. The hallway smelled like death. Most of the residents of this wing were here to die, the Colonel included. No amount of disinfectant or air freshener could sugarcoat that hard fact. “How often do you see him?”
“I try to get here at least twice a week.”
“I didn’t come in September. I should have, but . . .”
“It’s OK.” Grant shrugged. “He doesn’t know. His short-term memory is nonexistent. He doesn’t remember me. He has no idea I was here last Thursday. Every time I visit, he thinks I’m someone else.”
“How do you deal with that?” Staring at the Colonel’s open doorway, horror and fear curled inside her, waiting to unfurl. The hospital bed, the IV, the air of hopelessness, all brought back the memory of sitting at her mother’s side with the sole goal of minimizing her pain while she died over the course of several months.
“Coming here is for his benefit, not mine. My only goal is to give him a pleasant hour or two in the middle of what have become endless days of mental and physical misery. I let go of expecting him to know me. He doesn’t remember anything that happened over the last twenty-five years, but sometimes he surprises me with clear recollections of our childhood or his. When I bring the kids to see him, he thinks Carson is one of us boys and Faith is you.”
“You bring the kids here?” Sure, now a six-year-old could handle what Hannah couldn’t bear.
“Only if Ellie can come with me. So if the Colonel’s in a bad way, she can take the kids home. But he seems to have his best days when they’re here. Their presence perks him up. He doesn’t know specifically who they are, but he always senses they’re family.”
“So what should I do?”
“Play it by ear,” Grant said. “The hardest thing for me is remembering not to call him Dad. It confuses him, and he gets upset when he knows he should be remembering something and the information isn’t there. I always address him as Colonel or sir. That appears to take the pressure off. Then I just go with the flow.”
“You make it sound easy.”
“We both know it isn’t.” Grant gestured toward the door. “Let’s see how he is today.”
Hannah’s insides trembled as she stepped toward her father’s room. Grant put his hand on her elbow, and she tried to absorb some of his confidence.
The Colonel was asleep. Hannah couldn’t suck back the quick and quiet gasp as she registered his deterioration. His face was gaunt, his hands skeletal. His skin had tightened, as smooth as plastic, over his bones. Under the white linens, his body had shrunken. She had few memories of the Colonel before the explosion, bits of images and impressions that littered her mind like confetti. But even confined to a wheelchair, he’d been a formidable presence. Now his body was barely a shell.
A clip from her childhood played in her mind. The Colonel zooming through the forest on his specially rigged ATV. He’d been paralyzed in Desert Storm, but back then, he’d been determined to stay active. His descent into madness over the past few years had been the ultimate kick in the face for a man who’d confronted trial after trial with a warrior’s courage. It was as if Fate just wasn’t happy until she’d broken him.
Anger and hurt welled up in Hannah’s chest at the overwhelming unfairness.
Grant squeezed her arm. She ripped her eyes off her father’s shrunken figure and stared at her brother. Grant had inherited the Colonel’s size and natural leadership. The stubborn gene had been passed to all the Barretts. But their father was a soldier through and through. He’d shown his love for his children by pushing them as hard as new recruits. There was enough of Mom in Grant to soften his hard edges. He bonded with Carson and Faith in a way that had been impossible for the Colonel. Grant would never leave Faith behind, and he’d never exclude her, even unintentionally, and he wouldn’t put those two kids through drills that could break twenty-year-old men.
Grant walked to the bedside and inspected the bags hanging off an IV stand.
Hannah shuffled to her father’s side. Within a few seconds, lack of movement allowed anxiety to build in her bloodstream like a toxin.
“Colonel?” Grant touched Dad’s hand.
The Colonel opened his eyes, confusion and suffering clouding the once-sharp blue of his irises. “Gary?”
Hannah bit back a tear. The Colonel’s younger brother had been dead for fifteen years.
Grant didn’t miss a beat. “I brought you a visitor.”
The Colonel’s head moved on the pillow. His eyes blinked on Hannah. Recognition, then affection dimmed his pain, and relief flooded Hannah. He knew her.
All his joy came forth in one word. “Hope.”
The sound of her mother’s name from his lips nearly took out Hannah’s knees.
“Don’t just stand there, Gary,” the Colonel barked in a raspy, weak voice. “Get Hope a chair.” He coughed, the effort of issuing orders clearly taxing his lungs.
Grant rounded the bed and set a visitor chair behind Hannah. His hand on her shoulder steadied her legs.
This visit is for the Colonel, not for me.
She willed her disappointment away. It slunk to the wings and sulked, waiting. She knew it would be back.
Her father turned his hand over. His fingers curled in a Come here gesture. Hannah closed her hand over his, leaned over, and kissed his cheek. The strength of his grip around her fingers surprised her. She eased onto the plastic seat.
“Beat it, Gary,” the Colonel said with a slight jerk of his head. “I want to be alone with my girl.”
Wiping tears from her cheeks, Hannah laughed. Even impending death couldn’t break the Colonel’s fighting spirit.
With a sad smile, Grant bowed out, but Hannah knew he’d be lingering in the hallway, within earshot, in case she needed him.
“I’ll walk again. I promise,” the Colonel said.
He thought it was 1991, and he was just returning from Iraq. How often did he have to relive that awful time?
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