On a morning as ordinary as faded blue jeans, no different from dozens of other Saturdays, everything changed. As she slowed for a traffic signal behind a long string of vehicles, Robin spotted the man. Whoever he was, he ran at furious speed, racing across the open spaces between the electric substations as if his life might be in peril. Robin couldn’t imagine anything else powerful enough to inspire anyone to run so fast, so hard. Curious, she kept an eye on him to see where he went as she came to a stop at the highway interchange. Already ten minutes late for her hair appointment, midway through her weekly errands, she craned her head backward and over the dirty laundry stacked in the back seat. Just as the light went green, the runner changed course. His diagonal path would take him in front of her car so she hesitated, a car length behind the other vehicles, afraid she might hit him. At the last moment, he veered, switched course, and snatched open the passenger door. He climbed inside before she could scream or protest and spat out two words: “Hit it!”
Robin froze, uncertain what to do until the truck behind her blared its horn. After a brief hesitation, she drove forward, heart beating with a rock-and-roll rhythm. Every bone in her law-abiding body screamed to stop. Her passenger’s face shimmered with perspiration and his eyes glittered with pain. Although he had been running hard, he gasped for breath as if he had been hurt. When she sneaked a closer glance, she noticed blood dripping in staccato rhythm from beneath his leather jacket. “Hey, you’re hurt,” she said, shocked. In her comfortable world, people didn’t run or bleed from anything but a minor mishap. “What happened?”
“I got shot,” he said. Each word required a harsh-drawn breath. “Just drive, okay?”
“Shot?” she echoed. Maybe she had heard him wrong. “You were shot?”
He shot her a look from half-closed eyes and she noticed how pale he had become. “Yeah.”
Robin clamped her fingers tighter around the steering wheel as she stiffened. Whatever trouble he’d found, it wasn’t hers but she couldn’t abandon him on the side of the road either. She made a sudden, swift decision.
“I can take you to the hospital,” she said. “I’m sorry, but that’s it. Just hang on and we’ll get there as soon as I figure out if we’re closer to Hillcrest, OSU, or St. Francis.”
He’d closed his eyes, shuttered tight against the pain, but at her suggestion, he opened them and glared at her. “No hospital,” he choked. “Can’t. They report gunshot wounds.”
Disbelief cut through her anxiety so that she spoke without thinking. “Are you telling me you don’t want me to take you to the hospital?” He needed immediate medical attention. Those drops of blood she had noticed had become a stream flowing down the seat and puddling onto the floorboard. “You need to get help — you’re bleeding all over the place.”
His eyes narrowed as he glared at her. “I know, but I can’t go to the hospital. The law requires them to report any gunshot wounds. If they do, I’m a dead man. Can you drive any faster? I don’t think they saw what car I got into but they might have. If so, we’re both in trouble.”
He appeared about to collapse but he’d managed to speak up. And what he said scared her. “Who might’ve seen you?” Robin asked, afraid to hear the answer. The way he had been running, she figured it must have been the police, drug dealers, a gang, or maybe organized crime.
Her passenger slumped down in the seat. “I think maybe the cops did.”
Robin almost slammed on the brakes and her attention strayed from the road. She faced him and got a good look for the first time. He wore black leather pants, a leather jacket, and a black T-shirt. On his hands, he wore leather half-gloves and studded bracelets encircled both wrists. Although his hair was close-cropped in front, he had let it grow out in back. After his crazy run, his hair had wilted but she would bet he had had it spiked with gel before. Robin couldn’t determine if his style screamed biker, punk, Goth, or gang, but whatever his fashion statement might be, it stretched far outside her comfort zone. He had to be a criminal and she struggled to stay calm. Who knew what he might do if she provoked him?
“Were the police chasing you?” Her voice emerged shrill and frantic but he didn’t seem to notice.
“Yeah, they were,” he said after a moment. “That’s who shot me.”
Whoa. She braked hard and pulled into the first available parking lot at a shopping center. “Look, I’m sorry you got hurt but I can’t help you if you broke the law. I’ll take you to the hospital or police station but that’s it. I can’t help a criminal.”
Beneath his mussed hair, his sweat-slimed face relaxed and he offered her a faint grin. “That’s good ’cause I’m not one. I promise you, I’m innocent.”
Wasn’t that what they all said? Trying to sort it all out gave her a headache. Skeptical, Robin parked away from any other vehicles and cut the engine. She faced him. “Let’s see if I understand,” she said, with slow precision. Such an impossible scenario couldn’t be happening. Her reputation and record were washday clean. She had never had a single traffic ticket but now a fugitive from justice might be bleeding to death in her car. “You were pursued by police officers, they shot you, and you don’t want any medical treatment because they’ll report it and then authorities will arrest you.”
Despite his injury and condition, which seemed to have deteriorated since he climbed into the car, he sounded serene. “Yeah, that’s about it.”
Robin lacked calm as words tumbled from her mouth. “What am I supposed to do with you? I know what I am doing — I’m getting my phone out of my purse and calling the police. I can’t help you. I’m a law-abiding citizen.”
A dry, harsh sound burst from his mouth and it took more than a minute to realize he was laughing, even though his bleeding increased.
“Go ahead,” he said in a raspy, thin voice. “They’ll charge you with aiding and abetting a fugitive from justice. It might lessen the charges a little because you called, but the fact is you’ve picked me up and drove around with me in the car. The old innocent until proven guilty thing doesn’t always work. If it did, if I could trust it, I wouldn’t be bleeding into the floorboard. I’m innocent.”
He sounded convincing, so much she wanted to believe him. Doubt surged through her and she wondered how she had managed to get into this mess. Robin sighed and rubbed her forehead as her headache expanded. Without a twist of fate, she would have been at Ci Ci’s Curling Iron. Right now, she should be getting her hair done instead of dealing with a fugitive. Her headache pounded like a bass drum at a football homecoming game as she tried to find some way out of her current mess that wouldn’t land her in jail.
Without a clue how to proceed, she tried. “I have no idea what you want from me. I don’t even know your name.”
Her passenger tried to grin. “I guess you want the real one.”
His nonchalance sent her headache into a new dimension of pain.
“It’d be nice,” she told him, unable to keep the bite of sarcasm from her words. “I’ll tell you mine — Robin Cavanaugh.”
He laid his head back against the seat and nodded. “I know. I remember you from Living Love Chapel. I played bass guitar there a year or so ago. These days some people know me as Spike McGee but I’m Grayson Holcomb. Most of my family and friends call me Gray. I thought you’d know me.”
His words struck her with force and her mouth widened, then dropped open. If she squinted past the leathers, the blood, and the punk rocker look, she recognized him, but he had changed from the quiet, talented man she remembered. He had worn button-down Sunday shirts and dress jeans.
“I do — now,” Robin said. “You look so different now.” And he must have changed, she thought, because the guy she remembered and had spoken to a few times had seemed straight as an arrow.
“I guess,” Grayson said. He sounded puny and his voice wavered. “Listen, do you have anything to stop the bleeding? I’ll tell you whatever you need to know, when I can, but I feel like I might pass out.”
Robin snatched a dirty bath towel from the baskets of laundry in the back seat and handed it over. Gray pressed it against his lower left side with a groan. The yellow towel became maroon with blood so she grabbed another and gave it to him. He needed immediate medical care but learning she knew him had distracted her. “Is the bullet still inside?”
Gray shook his head. “No, huh-uh. It went through but I have two holes, an entry and an exit. I need to get it stopped before I bleed out.” His voice dropped as he became weak from blood loss. Robin picked up another towel and reached under his saturated jacket to press it against the wound. He grimaced at her touch and groaned as the towel blossomed red.
Although she had decided not to help, he evoked mercy, tenderness, or something. Although she should be calling the police, she asked, “Does it hurt?”
“Yeah, it does,” he replied through gritted teeth. “I’ll be okay if I don’t pass out.”
Okay didn’t appear to be a viable option. Grayson Holcomb sounded terrible and his appearance was worse. If his condition alarmed her when he first leapt into her car, it terrified her now. No color remained in his face and his lips had gone almost white… His voice dropped to a whisper and his hands trembled as he tried to fumble the towel tighter against the hole in his side. She removed another saturated one and replaced it. “What am I supposed to do with you?” Robin asked. “I suppose the hospital is still out of the question?”
“It is,” Gray told her. “How about you take me home instead?”
Although Robin thought his idea had much merit and she would hate to drop him off in his present shape, it might provide an answer to her problem. “Where do you live?”
“I can’t go home, not now. I meant your place.”
Incredulous, her voice climbed the scales to soprano.”Mine?”
“Yeah. Will you?”
Robin couldn’t. She wouldn’t. If he’d lied and wasn’t innocent, helping Gray would be wrong and land her in trouble, too. Her immaculate studio apartment, housed within an old elementary school, wasn’t large enough to hide a fugitive. The small space, once a classroom, had been divided into narrow kitchen, tiny living room, a single bedroom, and a dinky bath. Besides, School House Studios also prided themselves on security. Every door into the building stayed locked twenty-four hours a day and cameras panned the common lobby and the hallways constantly to prevent intruders. Robin couldn’t imagine any way to spirit a wounded man on the verge of fainting into a secure space and keep him in her small sanctuary. Robin opened her mouth to decline, to say no and suggest he think up some alternative, but she realized Gray had run out of options. Maybe he is innocent and if so, he might die if I don’t help. Uncertain whether or not she could live with his death on her conscience, she changed her mind.
“All right. I’m probably crazy but okay. I’ll take you home. But I have to figure out how to get you into my building. You’ll need a jacket or something to hide the wound and blood. I can’t take you through the lobby bleeding and bloodstained or someone will call the police. And I don’t have any first aid stuff to take care of your wound.”
Gray shut his eyes and for a second Robin thought he had passed out. About the time she started to panic, he said, voice faint and weak, “I think I’m in shock but if you’ll go in that store and buy the things I tell you, I can hang on for a little while longer.”
Robin didn’t see how he would manage but without any better idea, she nodded. “Sure. Tell me what I need and I’ll go get it.”
Grayson lifted his head with obvious effort. “First thing, bring me a full-strength Coke.”
He must have been delirious because his request didn’t make much sense. “Full-strength?”
A thin smile twitched the corners of his mouth for a moment. “I want a regular cola, one packed with sugar and caffeine. I need all the help I can get right now.”
Feeling dense, she sighed. “Okay, I’ll bring you one. What else?”
He chanted out a list like a kid running to the store for his mom.”Get some hydrogen peroxide gauze and adhesive tape, big square adhesive bandages, antibiotic cream, some kind of painkiller like ibuprofen, a sports drink, beef broth, antibacterial soap, a cheap shower curtain, a T-shirt, and a pair of large sweat pants. And some kind of jacket, the bigger, the better. Just hurry, please.”
He acted like death warmed over and on the verge of losing consciousness. “Are you sure you’ll be okay?”
He managed to turn his head to look at her and dug in his right pants pocket. Gray pulled out a wad of bills and peeled off a hundred dollar bill. “No, but it’s not like I have a choice.”
Robin gawked at the cash, more than she had seen outside a bank or checkout register, but she made no comment. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” He offered a weak nod and she grabbed her purse, clutching his money in one hand.
She headed for the chain discount drugstore halfway down the shopping center. Criminal or not, Robin was worried about Grayson. He ought to be in the hospital and as far as she could tell, his condition had deteriorated rapidly. Inside the store, she pushed a shopping cart through the aisles and gathered everything he’d suggested. Although her first aid knowledge was minimal, she added a few other items to the cart. Aware the selection of medical supplies might raise a red flag to an alert clerk, she tossed in a couple bottles of her favorite shampoo, a few cans of soup, a pair of rubber sandals, some vitamins, a paperback novel, a notebook, and a twelve-pack of soda. If she paused long enough to think, she would panic, so she focused on the task. At the checkout, she paid with the Benjamin Franklin Gray had provided and hurried out to the car. From across the lot she saw Gray slumped forward with his head on his chest. Alarmed, she tossed the bags into the back seat and climbed into the car.
“Grayson?” When he failed to respond, she tried again in a louder voice. “Grayson, Gray!”
He roused and blinked with bleary eyes. “What is it?”
Relief flooded Robin and she released the breath she had been holding. “I’m back with the shopping. Are you all right?”
“No,” he croaked in a dry rasp, “but if you’ve got Coke and some painkillers, I can hold on a few more minutes. Give me six of whatever you bought.”
She tapped six ibuprofen tablets into his curled hand and steered it toward his mouth. He popped them and reached for the Coke she had opened for him. He drank a third in one gulp, then leaned back against the headrest and exhaled. “Thanks.”
“You look like death warmed over,” she said, using one of her mom’s antiquated expressions. At close range, the bloodstains on his clothes stood out. “Can you slip into the jacket now?” At his nod, Robin reached for one of the bags and removed it. She pulled off the tags and held it so he could slide one arm into the sleeve. Gray managed the right one but he struggled with the left so she assisted. When he fumbled with the zipper, she worked it for him. The nylon jacket ballooned several sizes too large but it hid the bloodstains and gave her a chance to get him into her apartment without attracting notice.
Grayson huddled into the jacket, shivering with chills as he swigged more soda. Robin backed out of the parking lot and took the quickest route home. Halfway there, she noticed the puddle of blood in the passenger floorboard and the drenched towels were gone.
“What happened to the mess?”
Gray drank more Coke and answered in a faint voice she struggled to hear. “I mopped it up and shoved the towels under the seats so no one would notice.”
“Oh.” Injured and bleeding, he’d thought of something she wouldn’t have. “Good idea. Thanks.”
At her apartment building, he roused, shifted position, and moaned. Gray glanced up at the imposing brick building. “This isn’t a hospital, is it?”
“No. It’s School House Studios, where I live. We’ll go in the side entrance, then up a flight of stairs. It is shorter and we’ll run across less people than if we come in through the main lobby. Can you make it?” If he couldn’t, it would have to end now. Robin couldn’t carry him upstairs and she’d need to call the authorities or an ambulance. How she would explain his presence in her car was something she would rather not consider.
“Yeah, I can,” Gray said and finished off the remainder of the Coke. Although Robin rushed to the passenger side to help Gray, he still almost toppled onto the pavement. If he went face down in the parking area, someone would call 911 before she could get him back on his feet. She blocked his fall and took hold of his uninjured arm.
“Let me help,” she told him. “Swing your feet around. There. Now let me help you stand up. Good. I have my arm around your waist so you can lean on me. Put your arm across my shoulders or whatever works. We’ll walk in like a couple, okay? It’s the only way this won’t look weird.”
Grayson nodded and did as she asked. They walked the six feet from her parking space into the building with slow, tandem steps, pausing as she unlocked the door with her exterior key. Robin moved up the stairs and paced her steps with his. He struggled, though, and by the time they reached the top, he gasped for breath and his face shimmered with perspiration.
“Tell me there aren’t any more stairs,” he breathed in her right ear.
“No more stairs and it’s around the corner, down the corridor, and then turn again,” Robin said with an effort to sound cheerful. She doubted he would make it inside without collapsing. Because he stood taller and weighed more than she did, she had trouble trying to support his full weight.
At her apartment, Gray leaned against the wall as she unlocked the door. Still panting as if he had run a .400, pale as fine porcelain, Gray rallied enough to be bossy. They no sooner cleared her front door when he said, “Now you’ve got to clean the wound.”
“Let me shut the door first,” Robin said. “Just for future reference, the kitchen is the narrow space to your right and there’s an alcove with my computer to the left. The living room is straight ahead and the bedroom opens to the left, bathroom too. As soon as I put the bags down, I’ll help you to a chair.”
Grayson waved one hand in protest. “Uh-uh. I’m about to pass out. I can’t focus and I’m lightheaded. Put the shower curtain on your bed so I won’t ruin the covers with blood and I’ll try to make it there.”
Robin propped him against the counter dividing kitchen from living room and covered her bed. She returned for Gray, who wobbled as he leaned on her for support.
She tried to steady him and steered him to the bed. He flopped down hard on his back. Within seconds, his eyes fluttered shut and his rapid breathing slowed as he lost consciousness. Frustration brought tears to her eyes. She wanted to bawl like a baby or kick the wall but Robin did neither.
She studied him, uncertain what to do first. As a librarian, not a nurse, Robin had never done more than treat a skinned knee or give someone an aspirin, but she had completed the staff-required first aid class at the library and she was an avid reader. With her own good sense and basic training, Robin determined she could and would manage. Unless she broke the promise she had made Gray, there wasn’t an alternative.
First, she removed his boots and set them aside. Then Robin stripped away his stained clothing. Blood caked his left side, both dried and fresh. The wound still leaked blood but she washed it away, using warm water and antibacterial soap. As she worked, Gray sometimes moaned or twitched but he didn’t stir. He remained unconsciousness, a good thing for now because it made treatment easier.
After washing the wound, she cleaned it with the hydrogen peroxide, pouring some directly into the wound where it bubbled and fizzed. Gray moved in restless response and although his eyelids quivered, he didn’t open his eyes. Robin spread antibiotic cream around entry and exit wounds with gentle movements and covered both with gauze held in place with adhesive tape. Then she slipped the sweat pants over his legs, pulled them up, keeping them as loose as possible near the wound, and pulled, with greater difficulty, a clean white T-shirt over his head. In the simple garments, he seemed much more like the bass guitarist she remembered from church, younger and less dangerous. Robin folded his stained clothing and checked the pockets, which yielded nothing but the wad of cash, a set of keys, and a cell phone. Robin put them in the drawer of her nightstand and sat on the edge of the bed to assess her patient.
Gray’s condition worsened and Robin worried. His face lacked any color, ghost pale, and his eyes, though closed, sank deeper into his skull. At first, she thought his stillness might mean improvement but after scrutiny, Robin feared he had grown worse. He had stopped sweating but when she touched his face with a light hand, his skin radiated heat. To be sure he wasn’t just over warm; she got her thermometer, bought during last winter’s bout of bronchitis, and inserted it into his ear. It registered 102.2 Fahrenheit. Robin gasped. She hadn’t foreseen any major complication and it scared her. She had been able to handle cleaning the wound but nursing an infection went far beyond her capabilities.
“Grayson, wake up,” she said with urgency. “You should’ve let me take you to a hospital. It’s not too late, I still can.”
His eyes, brilliant blue, opened wide. “No,” he whispered. “Just clean it.” Then he gripped her hand with surprising strength for an injured man.
Was he cognizant? She wasn’t sure. “I did, Gray. It’s as clean as I know how to make it. You’re running a fever, though, and I’m worried.”
His voice came out slurred and hard to understand but she managed. “Don’t… be… I’ll be… all right.”
“You have to be,” Robin said, her voice breaking. If he died, it would be her fault because she hadn’t taken him to the hospital. Whatever he had done, whether he was innocent or guilty, he had to recover. Maybe it was his weak condition or extreme need, but Gray touched her, pulled at her heart in a way Robin couldn’t begin to understand. “Gray, try to rest, please. Let me see if I can get the shower curtain out from under you.”
Robin tugged and asked him to roll until she pulled the plastic free. He shivered as if he had to be cold so she pulled up the cotton sheet and topped it with a simple blanket. She arranged the pillows beneath his head so he would be comfortable and tucked another beside his wound.
His eyes, small slits, widened as he whispered, “Thank you.”
Those polite manners her mother had instilled in her at an early age never failed and though tears burned in both eyes, she said, “You’re welcome.”
Grayson nodded and slipped into either sleep or unconsciousness, but she had no idea which. Weary, anxious, and rattled, Robin slid onto the floor into a nervous heap and pillowed her head against the mattress. Inches from Gray’s too-warm body tucked into her bed, she released the tears she had held for hours and sobbed aloud with enough force to shake the mattress, but it didn’t disturb him. “I don’t know what I’ve gotten myself into,” she said aloud when the emotional storm passed. “But I hope he recovers.”
What she hated to admit, even to herself, was how much she cared.