She’d had a bad night and still felt rough. Her sinuses burned, a heavy weight rested on her chest and every time she swallowed, it felt as if someone had taken eighty-grit sandpaper to her throat.
She raised the back of her bed and rolled the tray table closer. Early-afternoon sunlight streamed in through the hospital window, making the room look more stark than cheery. This was the last place she wanted to be, but she was thankful Jason had talked her into letting the paramedics transport her.
She hadn’t recognized him when he’d first climbed into the ambulance. When they’d last seen each other, she’d just turned thirteen and he’d been fourteen. Now the lanky boy he’d been was gone. Instead, a man stood in his place—a hero.
He’d said he’d check on her. He’d kept that promise. Early that morning, he’d popped in for a short visit before leaving for his mother’s chemo appointment.
Now lunch waited. The salad she’d ordered had arrived an hour ago, right after she’d fallen asleep. She’d woken long enough to say she’d eat it later.
She removed the cover from the plate and picked up the ranch dressing packet lying on the tray. The salad had oil already drizzled over it. Odd, since she’d ordered ranch rather than a vinaigrette.
She tore open the packet and squeezed the creamy contents over the greens. She wouldn’t bother sending it back. The oil likely wouldn’t hurt the flavor.
She’d just started eating when a nurse walked into the room.
“How are you feeling?”
“Better now that I’ve gotten some sleep.” She couldn’t say her symptoms had improved, but at least she wasn’t as tired.
“Good.” The woman checked the monitors, transferring the information to the chart. Apparently satisfied with what she saw, she smiled. “Your handsome friend asked me to keep a close eye on you. He seemed pretty worried.”
Lacey’s heart fluttered as warmth spread through her. “I’m sure I’ll be fine. You guys are taking good care of me.”
Alone again, she finished her salad, then turned on the TV. Over the next half hour, she clicked through several channels, then finally turned it back off. None of the programs sparked her interest.
She shifted position and tossed the blanket back. She’d been cold since arriving. Now she was too warm. And no matter what she did, she couldn’t get comfortable. Everything seemed off, as if something was wrong with her body.
Of course something was wrong. She’d almost died in a fire last night. Who knew what toxic chemicals she’d inhaled or how long it would take for her lungs to heal?
She picked up her tea and took some gulps. Although the ice had melted, the coolness soothed her throat. Except now she seemed to be swallowing around a lump.
She should have asked the doctor some questions when he’d visited that morning. Did smoke inhalation symptoms get worse as the body struggled to heal itself?
That was what seemed to be happening. She’d been on oxygen since before arriving at the hospital. Instead of the mask they’d used in the ambulance, clear tubing ran across her face, delivering it directly into her nose.
It wasn’t helping. Her throat wasn’t just scratchy. Now it was tight, as if it was swelling from the inside. She’d had a similar sensation before, during the two occasions she’d been exposed to sesame products as a child.
That wasn’t the case this time. She’d made sure her sesame allergy was noted in her chart. What she was experiencing had to be from the damage to her throat, lungs and bronchial tubes.
She pushed the tray table aside and fully reclined her bed, her heart racing. She pressed a hand to her neck. Beneath her fingers, her pulse was fast but weak.
The nurse had checked on her forty-five minutes ago, but maybe she should summon her. She reached for the call button. It was no longer hanging from the side rail. At least not where it had been earlier. Had the nurse moved it while she slept? But it wasn’t on the other side, either.
Using the rails, she pulled herself upright. Her heart beat erratically, and her throat grew tighter, restricting her air flow. Maybe she was having nothing more than a panic attack, but she needed help.
When she tried to call out, all she could manage was a raspy whisper. She snatched the tubing from her face and slid toward the bottom of the bed. She was now struggling to take in air through passages that seemed no larger than a straw.
After swinging her legs past the side rail, she pushed herself to her feet. A wave of dizziness assaulted her. Two stumbling steps later, she collapsed to her hands and knees, eyes wide with realization.
The oil on her salad.
It hadn’t been put there by hospital staff. While she’d slept, someone had tampered with her meal.
She’d survived the fire only to be taken out by a tablespoon of sesame oil.
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