SPRING HILL — Just pieces of the phone call remain in her mind now.
Soon after she put her young son and daughter to bed on the evening of July 2, Penny Mecklenburg spoke to her husband, John, a patrol deputy at the Hernando County Sheriff's Office — a call she made to him every night he was on duty.
Penny remembers talk of a party and saying, in the same breath as John, that their schedules matched and for once they could attend together.
"I can't believe," he told her, "you can finish my sentences."
It was a moment between two people who shared many. The couple fell in love at 16, married at 25. She could see from his dimples if he told her the truth. His baby blue eyes and long lashes, even years later, still gave her butterflies. "Disgusting," Penny says, is the only way to describe how cute they were together.
As the conversation neared its end, she said "I love you," and so did he. Penny told him to be safe.
About 6 a.m., her phone rang. Lt. Harold Hutchinson, her husband's commanding officer, was on the line.
"Please," she said, "tell me John's okay."
"I'm at your door," he responded. "I need you to come to the door."
Five men stood outside: Hutchinson, Sheriff Al Nienhuis, two captains and a chaplain.
"No matter what happens," one of them insisted, "you need to remember John was a hero."
Penny didn't want to hear those words.
"That," she said, "was the beginning of my nightmare."
• • •
Between Penny's phone call to John and the delegation at her door, a felon named Michael James Anthony had driven the wrong way through a stoplight in downtown Brooksville.
Later, authorities say, Anthony rammed Sgt. Brandon Ross' vehicle in Masaryktown, causing him to crash into a pickup truck and a power pole. He suffered minor injuries. John continued the chase into Pasco County before he lost control of his cruiser and slammed into a tree.
His injuries were horrific, but for four hours, doctors fought to save him. John, 35, underwent three blood transfusions. In his Tampa hospital room, Penny begged her husband not to leave.
"Please," she whispered, "come back to me."
At 9:21 a.m. July 3, John died.
Penny, also 35, remembers only that she couldn't breathe. There are times, a month later, she still can't. When she sees his empty chair at the dinner table. When a police car drives by. When she reads to her kids, alone.
She spoke publicly about her loss for the first time last week. One hand gripped the other, few of her sentences ended without tears. People know Penny — a popular science teacher at Hernando High School — as feisty, strong-willed and maybe even a little pushy, but that's hard to see in her now.
The slender mom with brunet hair has searched for a "new normal," but she hasn't found it. She just wants John back.
"It still doesn't feel real," she said, "because he was so alive and so real and so genuine and so much in love that it just feels like he couldn't possibly, he couldn't possibly be gone."
• • •
Penny and John met at Springstead High School in Spring Hill as 14-year-old sophomores. She had moved to Florida from Illinois. He had come from Wisconsin. They didn't like each other at first. She thought he was goofy and annoying, and he didn't think she was friendly.
They gave each other relationship advice and complained about significant others. Penny's mom recommended she date John, "that cute little blond-headed kid."
For her 16th birthday in June 1992, Penny had a pool party. John cornered her. He had learned of a rumor that she liked him.
"I heard," he said, "you have something to tell me."
Penny was shy, but John pressed her for an answer.
"He used his eyes," she said. "Cheater."
At last, she admitted it, so he kissed her and then bragged about it to his friends. She didn't know that part until years later.
They made the relationship official the next day. The two were engaged six years later, and this October would have marked their 10th wedding anniversary.
Their son, Andy, arrived 4½ years ago, and about 20 months ago, Jessica was born.
For years, John supported Penny's career. They moved to Gainesville while she earned her bachelor's degree at the University of Florida. They moved to New York, where she got her master's. John drove trucks and, a few years after they moved back to Florida in 2002, he started work at Bright House Networks.
He never complained, but for as long as Penny had known him, John wanted to be a cop. While he worked days at the cable company, he drove night after night to a police academy in Pasco.
Five times, he applied for positions in law enforcement before he got the job in Hernando. Penny remembers that day in January 2009. She was giving a test to her biology students. She had forgotten to turn her cell phone off, and when John called, the ring blared out in the middle of class.
She checked her voice mail: "This is Deputy Mecklenburg calling."
Penny broke her own rules and called him back in front of her students. That night, she and Andy made him a sign: "Congratulations Deputy Daddy."
She told John his job scared her, but Penny would have never asked him to quit. He loved it too much.
• • •
Nights, now spent only with her thoughts, are the hardest for Penny.
After she and John had kids, evenings became their time for each other. They cuddled on the couch and held hands and talked about life. She called him "babe"; he called her "Punkin."
They watched COPS on TV.
"I liked it, too," she said. "I can't watch it now, though."
Jessica has nightmares. She holds up photographs of her father and wraps her tiny arms around them.
Andy doesn't understand what happened, but he knows Daddy is in his heaven and not coming home.
"He gets sad when I cry," Penny said of her son. "He wipes my tears, at 4½ years old."
She has thought about Michael Anthony, the man authorities have charged in connection with John's death. She's just not ready to talk about him.
Penny will go back to teaching in a few weeks. She thinks the students, and their humor, will help her, but she's nervous.
Since her husband died, most people have overwhelmed her with support, but some have said stupid, insensitive things. They've asked too many questions. They've told her the way to feel and how lucky she was to have him for 18 years.
She doesn't disagree, but she still feels cheated.
Two nights before John died, he and Penny shared one of their moments.
John embraced her in their kitchen. He was 5-11. She is 5-4. When they hugged, her head rested right against his shoulder.
"We were made to be together," he told her, "because look how good we fit."
Andy and Jessica squeezed in between them and, for the last time, the Mecklenburgs all held each other.
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1432.