Chapter 1 - Jefferson
Exhaustion. That was the only word he could think of. Jefferson flicked out the bedroom light and let out the sigh he’d been holding back. Fatigue permeated his bones as he padded softly to the kitchen, and for a moment he thought about running down to the counter store for a bottle of something to help him sleep.
Liquid Courage. That’s what they’d called it in college, and it had certainly given him courage. Courage to attend the party, courage to hit on the pretty girl. However, it also had a dark side. The lure of feeling good and believing you could do nothing wrong along with the ability to make you lose control and pass out. It wasn’t those evil sides Jefferson was looking for, and he’d promised himself he would never return no matter how big the temptation, but he couldn’t deny it was strong tonight.
Not the need to lose control or even the need to feel good - he was pretty happy with his life, considering. No, just the desire to pass out. To let his brain turn off, let his body relax, and fade off to dreamland for a solid eight hours. He’d even settle for six. When was the last time he’d gotten a good six continuous hours of sleep?
Jefferson paused, his hand on the fridge door. When was the last time he’d gotten a night of uninterrupted rest? Two years ago? Three? Before Hayley that’s for sure. He blew out a frustrated breath and opened the door. However, as soon as the cold air hit him, he merely blinked, unsure of exactly what he’d come in the kitchen to get.
Jefferson let the refrigerator door swing close and ran a hand down his face, feeling the stubble of his five o’clock shadow scrape across his palm like dried sand after a day at the beach. He might have to consider getting some help if things didn’t turn around soon, especially now that he was playing more often. Of course, Mason was only gone for a week, but sleep deprivation was dangerous. That was the case regardless of other criteria, but Jefferson felt it was even more so when you were on a field running for your life against people whose only desire was to tackle you. Even the safety measures the league had in place didn’t protect everyone all the time.
Warm milk. Isn’t that what his mother used to suggest when he had trouble sleeping as a kid? Jefferson opened the fridge again and stared at the milk, but the thought of heating it up not only turned his stomach but would require effort. Effort he didn’t feel like exuding at the moment. Maybe cold milk would work just as well. He could drink a glass as he did his nightly devotion and then maybe he could get some rest.
With the decision made, he grabbed the milk jug and let the fridge door close again as he turned to the cupboard to retrieve a cup. He poured the ivory liquid in, watching the few bubbles that surged to the surface as if competing in a race. When the cup was three quarters full, he put the lid back on the milk and returned it to the fridge. Then he carried the milk to the table where his Bible lay.
He took a swig as he sat down and opened the book to the last chapter he’d been reading, but as he stared at the page, the words swam together. This was going to be harder than the thought. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he took a deep breath.
“Lord, I could use some help. I’m trying to focus on Your word, but my body is tired and my mind won’t quit. Please, help me.”
He’d been hoping for a feeling of peace, maybe even a jolt of energy or the mind numbing sensation of his brain turning off. Instead what he got was an agonizing scream that sent tiny slivers of ice shooting through his veins.
When he’d been younger, he’d thought sneakers squeaking on a tile floor was the worst sound in the world, but after Hayley, he’d realized how wrong he’d been. There was nothing like the sound of your daughter screaming. The intensity, nervousness, and fear it elicited compared to nothing else.
He pushed back from the table so hard that the chair he’d been sitting in clattered to the floor with a loud thud, but he barely heard and he had no desire to remedy it at the moment. His daughter was in pain, and that was all that mattered now.
Pushing her door open, he rushed to her bed where she thrashed back and forth, her tiny hands clutching her tummy.
“It hurts, Daddy. It hurts so bad.”
The tears that streamed down her face clawed at his heart as did the agonizing expression distorting her beautiful face. “What does, baby? Your tummy?”
“Uh huh. Can you make it stop?”
He wished he could. She’d never been a great sleeper, but the last few nights she’d woken up complaining that her tummy hurt. He’d checked her temperature, given her some Tylenol, and sat with her until she’d gone back to sleep. However, he’d never seen her as pale as she was tonight. When he touched her head, the heat radiating off her burned his finger tips. Whatever this was, Tylenol wasn’t going to solve it tonight.
“Hang on, baby,” he said, scooping her up into his arms. Even though she was burning up, he wrapped the blanket around her. The night air outside would be cold and he had no idea how long they might have to wait to be seen. Besides, it would keep her teddy bear close to her - something he knew she would want.
He grabbed his wallet and keys, shuffling her weight in his arms in order to shove the wallet in his pocket and get the keys in a position that would allow him to lock the door behind him. With each rearrangement, she moaned a little louder, tearing at his heart once more.
“Just hang on. We’re going to see a doctor and find out how to make you better.” He hurried to the car, shielding her as best as he could from the biting cold.
“It hurts so bad,” she moaned as he buckled her in her car seat and tucked the blanket around her.
“I know, baby; I know.” Please Lord, let her be okay, he prayed silently as he inserted the key in the ignition and fired up the car. He couldn’t lose her too. The Bible said God never gave you more than you could handle, but he was confident losing Hayley would be his breaking limit.
Few cars were on the road this evening which Jefferson was thankful for, and the parking lot of the emergency room appeared sparse as well. Perhaps they would be able to get her seen quickly. Every tear and moan tore at his soul, leaving marks he knew would take a lifetime to heal.
After parking the car, he scooped her up in his arms, locked the car, and hurried into the emergency room. The front doors swished softly as he approached, announcing his arrival. All but two of the chairs in the waiting room were empty, and a lone nurse attending the desk glanced up as he neared.
“It’s my daughter,” he said. “Her stomach has been hurting and now she’s burning up.”
The nurse stood, grabbed a thermometer and ran it across Hayley’s head. “One hundred and two. Let’s get her in a room and then I’ll get you started on the paperwork.” She picked up the phone and relayed a brief message to whomever was on the other end. A moment later, another nurse appeared and led him to a room.
He placed Hayley on the gurney which made her look even smaller and then stepped back as the nurse began examining her. “How long has she had the pain?”
“A few days,” Jefferson said, scratching at his chin, “but never this bad. Normally, I give her some Tylenol and sit with her and she goes to sleep and seems fine in the morning. This is the first night she’s had a fever.”
The nurse nodded. “Any allergies that you know of?”
Jefferson shook his head. “No, none. Is she going to be okay?”
The nurse paused her examination to offer him a reassuring smile. “We’re going to run some tests and find out what’s wrong with her. Don’t you worry.”
It wasn’t the answer he’d been hoping for, but he knew it was the best she could do at the moment. Worry wasn’t something he could put out of his mind though. Not while his little girl lay on the table groaning in agony. But he also knew that there was only one thing he could do for her at the moment, and that was to pray.