Even before the officers had shown up at his door, Carter knew that something was wrong. He’d listened to the radio ranting about the fire all afternoon, and had caught a glimpse or two of the wreckage on TV. While he couldn’t have known that it was his daughter’s flight, Carter felt uneasy the moment the story first aired. After all, even with Princess’ typical attitude, there was no way she wouldn’t have called to reassure him.
The two officers that delivered the news offered him a ride. He declined. Instead, he watched for their car to fade into the distance to grab his keys. By that point, his mind was overflowing with emotion, so much that he’d forgotten to call Fiona until he was well out the door, but even then he couldn’t bring himself to give her the details. Instead, he spent the three-hour drive focusing on the road before him, never once touching the radio or answering his phone.
When he arrived at the hospital, the parking lot was packed. The press had formed a wall across the sidewalk, each reporter trying to force their way past the police line. He managed to get through the crowd without an escort, but that was short lived–he only made it halfway to the doors when a reporter recognized him, and when his name was called the crowd whipped itself into a frenzy. Carter was forced to run the last stretch as the police pushed back against the chaos. As the doors closed behind him, Carter gritted his teeth and hissed, “Goddamned vultures.” He tried his best to bear the pain in his knees.
The woman behind the desk barely seemed to notice him, being more concerned with the mob attempting to rush the door. After the commotion began to die down, flashed a false smile and said, “Beautiful night isn’t it? All the bats are out.”
“Jackals is more like it.”
“Definitely.” She looked back toward the door and frowned. “I’m surprised you made it in here in one piece.”
“So am I,” he said. He took a moment to catch his breath. “I need Pepper Carter’s room number. Can you get it?”
“I certainly can,” the woman said. She began typing furiously on the keyboard. “Sorry to hear about Princess. Not even she deserved that.”
Even here, Carter thought. “How is she? My granddaughter, I mean.”
“She’s lucky. Most of the other survivors got it worse.”
Survivors. Carter hadn’t thought about it, but the flight was probably packed with people coming home for the holidays. It was likely most of them didn’t make it off the plane alive.
“It seems she’s been discharged,” she said. “She’s in Room 12. If you’d like, I can buzz you in from here.”
“Of course, thanks.”
“Any time.” She leaned out of her chair to press a button on the wall, and the doors beside the desk began to open.
* * *
She was seated on the edge of the exam table staring at the clock. Her nose was bandaged and her ankle in a splint, but otherwise she seemed to be fine. Pepper glanced up at her father as he entered the room. With a weak voice she said, “Hey.”
“Pepper, I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Pepper said. She stood, grabbing an old nurse’s jacket and pulling it over her shoulders. “She saved me, you know.”
“Anyway,” she said, “you’re the sentimental one. I’ll survive.”
Carter wasn’t shocked by her casual attitude. Pepper was unflappable even in the worst situations–possibly more so than was healthy. She’d always been that way. As a young child she was diagnosed with conduct disorder, and most of her early years were plagued with antisocial behavior. As she grew up, she seemed to develop something that resembled empathy, but she was still thoughtless, blunt, and even a bit caustic.
Carter looked at his granddaughter to see that she had removed her splint. She was massaging her ankle with her fingertips, nursing what he assumed was a mild sprain. “What is it?”
“You wouldn’t mind grabbing a chocolate milk for me, would you? I need to settle my stomach, and I don’t really feel like eating.”
Carter smiled. “Why don’t I wheel you down to the cafeteria instead?” he asked.
“I can walk just fine,” she said. “Besides, I’m not hungry.”
“Well, you need to eat,” he replied. “I’ll buy you one of everything off the menu, and you can pick what you like.”
“God, Grandpa, do you think I’m a pig?” Pepper sneered. “Just grab me a chocolate milk, and I’ll be fine. I promise.”
“So where’s Fiona, anyway?” Pepper asked.
“She’s at work. I really didn’t have time to get her,” he said. “I did call her though. She says she’s sorry she couldn’t be here. I don’t think I need to tell you how sincere she is.”
“Are you kidding?” Pepper said with a snicker. “I doubt she could tell a lie if she wanted to. It’s the only thing I don’t like about her. Makes her too much of a target.” With that, her attitude seemed to fade. “Grandpa,” she asked, “You wouldn’t mind if I slept on the couch for a few days, would you? The boat’s a little big for one person.”
“Absolutely not,” Carter said. “We still have Fiona’s old bedroom. You’ll have to share it with the teeth of a hundred dead sharks, but you will not be sleeping on the couch.”
It was the first time in years he’d seen Pepper smile.