EMS STATION 1
APRIL 12, 2013. 7:50 AM
EMS Station 1 was the largest station in the Barrington County system. Nestled under the Sacred Heart Hospital parking garage, it boasted a duty room with lightly stained recliners and a break room with a working microwave. The business office windows displayed the hospital’s new cancer wing, and the lockers in the locker room closed most of the time.
Megan leaned against the locker room wall. “Where’s Emily?”
“Doctor put her on bed rest,” Richard said, pinning the month’s schedule to the bulletin board.
Megan straightened. “Is she okay? She’s not due until June!”
“Seems to be,” he said. “Her blood pressure spiked. If she comes back, they’ll put her on light duty behind a desk. She won’t be on the ambulances again until after she delivers the baby.”
Megan folded her arms warily, and Richard avoided her eyes. Emily’s absence begged the question. “Who’s subbing for her?”
Richard opened his locker. “There’s no sub.” He shrugged on his jacket. “We’ve made a five-month personnel change to cover her maternity leave.”
Megan caught the locker door as he tried to close it. “Who’s my partner?”
“That soldier guy with one leg?” she sputtered. “Are you kidding me?”
Richard held up his hand. “Don’t start, Megan.” He slammed his locker and walked into the hallway.
She grabbed her jacket and strode after him. “Why do I always get the newbie?”
“He has combat experience, and he’s been here three months,” Richard said. “He’s not a newbie.”
Megan rolled her eyes. “But he was a mercy hire. The last thing I need is for something to go down on scene and I get left holding the bag because some poster boy for disabled vets can’t handle his end of the stretcher!”
Richard turned the corner and stopped short. Megan swung around. Her eyes locked with a tall man, stern and silent. His broad shoulders filled his red Barrington EMS polo shirt, and his chest tapered to a trim waist. He braced his hands on his hips. A muscle twitched in his jaw.
“Nathan,” Richard said with a simpering smile. “We were just talking about you.”
Nathan glared. “I heard.”
Embarrassment crept into her cheeks.
“Yes. I—Well,” Richard stammered. “This is your partner, Megan Henderson.”
Nathan offered his hand, and Megan shook it. His grip was firm. His brown eyes betrayed no emotion.
She looked away. “Nice to meet you,” she muttered.
Nathan brushed past and continued down the hallway. Megan turned to stare at his back and sighed as the awkwardness abated.
Richard sucked a tooth. “You two should have fun today.”
She scowled. “Seriously, you can’t find me anyone else?”
“Where are we posted?” she said, shoving her hands into her pockets.
“Station 6, like usual. Stay safe.”
Megan nodded and walked away. “That’d be easier if you had my back,” she grumbled, slamming her palm onto the door and entering the ambulance bay.
Nathan slung his backpack into the ambulance.
“We need to check supplies,” Megan said, resigned to her fate.
A thrill-a-minute chore with Wonder Boy.
Megan raised an eyebrow. “You did?”
“I’m not an idiot. We only need a backboard.” He walked toward the supply room.
Hoping to underscore her authority, Megan climbed into the driver’s seat. She cranked the engine and charted the mileage. The singer on the radio crooned about his honky-tonk lady until Megan slapped the knob. A flash in the side view mirror caught her attention, and she stared at Nathan’s muscular arms as he carried the backboard to the truck. She leaned on the door for a better look.
At least he’s hot. He looks like a swimmer.
Squinting her eyes, she detected a slight limp, a small favoring of his left side.
Megan climbed out of the cab and felt a twinge of remorse for her comments. “I’m sorry I said what I did.”
“No, you’re not.” He shoved the backboard into the side compartment.
Megan’s anger flared. “You’re right. I’m just sorry you heard.”
“That’s the truth.” He slammed the cargo door and folded his arms. “I know what people say about me. I saw you staring in the mirror, and I don’t give a damn what you or anyone else thinks. I can out run, out climb, and out work anyone in this service, including you.”
“I have to be able to depend on you,” Megan said. “I have to know that when I need you, you aren’t going to trip over your own—” She cut her words short but saw the challenge on his face. “Trip over your own feet.”
“Foot. I only have one.” Nathan pulled up his left pant leg and revealed the metal pylon that extended from his boot to the socket that fit just below his knee. “Take a good, long look, Megan. Let’s get this over with. It’s hard to hear about how I’m such a big liability from a…” he stepped back and considered her, his eyes roving down her figure, “21-year-old, five-foot-three, 130-pound female.”
Megan glowered. “120.”
Their radios screeched a loud tone.
“You’re not 120 pounds,” he chuckled.
His laugh crushed her last nerve. “I’m 23!” she said. “You’re being—”
The dispatcher’s voice spoke from the radio. “Med 3, be en route to Harrison and Monroe, Harrison and Monroe, signal 4.”
Megan tipped her head to her mic. “10-4.”
Nathan smirked. “What were you saying?”
“Get in. I’m driving.”
With Megan at the wheel, they drove code 3—lights and sirens—through town. Traffic moved to the side to allow them to reach the signal 4, a car wreck. To avoid talking, she pretended the drive required all of her focus. To her relief, he accommodated her silence.
At least he’s not a pest.
Fire trucks and police cars clogged the intersection ahead. Megan scanned the area and pulled to the side of the road.
“The driver of the ambulance,” she said, carefully avoiding the derogatory term ‘ambulance driver,’ “assists the person who rides in the passenger seat, so I’ll assist you. I’ll be watching your technique and therapeutic rapport. Follow protocol, and show me what you’ve got.”
He smiled as he put on his gloves, further rankling her.
Megan slid the stretcher from the back of the ambulance and set the backboard on top as Nathan pulled the jump kit over his shoulder and walked toward the smashed cars. She wheeled to the scene.
“Martin!” she called to a firefighter. “There’s only one patient?”
A man in bunker gear and a red helmet grinned and strutted over to her. His black eyes sparkled mischievously. “Hey, Doll! Yeah, just one. Head hit the windshield. It’s not bad, just bloody. Where’s Emily?”
Megan scowled. “She’s on bed rest now.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah, I was, too,” she said, missing her friend and long-time partner more than ever. “Now I’m stuck with Nathan Thompson.”
“Is that so bad?” Martin said. “He’s been around a while. Seems competent.”
“Don’t remind me. I want to be angry.”
He winked. “You’re beautiful when you’re angry.”
“Still married, Martin,” she said, smiling in spite of herself. “I’m still married.”
He wiggled his black mustache. “You just let me know when that changes, Doll, and I’ll be first in line. Is that a new ponytail holder you’re wearing?”
“Go away, Martin,” she laughed.
Megan rolled the stretcher to the mangled car where Nathan knelt next to the driver’s side. The woman’s head and torso were covered in congealing blood and little glass squares from the side window. A glass spiderweb rippled across the windshield where her head had impacted. A firefighter, who had curled himself into the backseat, held the woman’s neck still.
Nathan wrapped a collar around the woman’s neck. “We’re going to move you to a backboard now.”
Megan watched him work, searching for mistakes and admitting he had made none. He was thorough and attentive. His motions were firm but gentle. She felt her resolve melting. He seemed to be the well-trained paramedic everyone said he was.
Megan moved to help, and they inched the woman onto the board and slid her into place, securing the straps. The board wobbled, and the woman flung her arm out, smearing blood and glass crumbles onto Megan’s shirt.
First call, and I already need a clean shirt.
Nathan strapped the board to the stretcher as Megan stepped away to brush glass from her stomach and chest.
“Here, let me help you,” Martin said eagerly.
She jumped away. “Touch me, and I’ll slap you with battery charges so fast your lawyer will have to fly a Concorde to keep you out of jail.”
His black eyes twinkled. “I love it when you talk dirty to me, Doll.”
With a smile, Megan shook her head and followed Nathan to the ambulance. She slammed the doors after him and climbed into the cab, waiting for his signal and then easing into traffic.
So, he’s not an idiot.
Megan released a bit of her hostility, reassuring herself that she did not have to like him, only work with him. But she tucked away a generous portion of her reservations. The shift was still young.
At the hospital, Nathan reported to the receiving nurse and washed his hands.
“Go ahead and restock the truck,” Megan directed. “I need to clean up.”
“Sure. Should I call 10-8 and let dispatch know we’re ready?”
“Yeah, I won’t be long.”
Megan walked through the sliding doors of the Sacred Heart Emergency Room, jumped down off the ambulance dock, and walked down the hill to Station 1. Grabbing an extra shirt from her locker, she went into the bathroom, careful to lock the door and test the knob twice. She pulled the soiled shirt over her head and stood before the mirror in her bra. Turning slowly from side to side, she stared at the purple, green, and yellow bruises on her chest.
MILE MARKER 6, HIGHWAY 42
APRIL 12, 2013. 10:30 PM
Nathan squinted in the flash of red and blue lights as he climbed out of the ambulance. He scanned the scene: traffic stop, medical assist.
Probably a drunk. No big deal.
He threw the jump bag strap over his head and across his chest and snapped gloves on. Megan walked next to him. He had heard much about her in his few months with Barrington County EMS. Supervisors had described her as a ‘dependable presence’ on scene; others had said she was nice to work with; a few had called her bitchy. Most had commented, more or less colorfully, on her figure. But all had spoken with respect and mentioned her compassion. She helped cover others’ shifts when hardship hit. She would buy groceries for shut-in patients and spend extra time at assisted living facilities, talking with the residents. She was known to return insult with kindness and a smile.
He chuckled at that.
They had each dished out fair return to the other throughout the day, but even so, he suspected there was more to Megan Henderson than the gruffness he had seen. Already, she had dialed back the strut in her step and the bite of her words.
They walked toward a group of police officers that stood talking by the side of the highway.
“About time you showed up,” a blond police officer called. Nathan didn’t like his tone, and when the cop flipped his hair like a surfer at the beach, it set Nathan’s teeth on edge.
“What do you want, Todd?” Megan said.
“Girl, you know what I want,” Todd said. Nathan expected snickers from the other officers, but they only watched as Todd and Megan continued to the patrol car.
Nathan trailed after them, watching Megan’s long, brown ponytail bob back and forth. The advanced reports of her good looks were not exaggerations. She was easy on the eyes.
Megan and Todd stopped by the car. Nathan’s gaze slid to the escaped curls at the nape of her neck, continued along her shoulder, and then dropped to her hips. Her cargo pants were too baggy to form to her legs, but her smooth waist was highlighted by the regulation black web belt. She put her hands on her hips, and he easily noticed her curves. Were she unwed, she would be on his radar.
Todd cleared his throat.
Nathan looked up to Todd’s angry disapproval.
What the fuck? Why does he care if I check her out?
Nathan glared back, undaunted.
“Guy I arrested says he’s having chest pain,” Todd said.
“And you left him in your car?” Megan said.
Megan frowned. “Let me decide that. Next time, you keep an eye on him.” She stepped to the car.
“I’ll keep an eye on you,” Todd said and smacked Megan’s ass. She jumped, and Nathan blinked with surprise. He waited for her explosion.
“Don’t,” she said.
Todd laughed and caught her waist, pulling her toward him as if for a kiss.
Megan ducked. “Stop it!”
Nathan shouldered his way between them. “Cut it out. She doesn’t want you to do that.”
“She doesn’t want you to do that!” Todd mocked.
Nathan stepped closer. Had Todd been two inches taller, they would have been nose to nose. “Leave her alone,” Nathan growled.
Todd sneered. “You need to mind your own business.”
“Can I just see my patient, please?” Megan asked.
Nathan held Todd’s gaze, willing himself not to blink. Todd looked away, and Nathan stepped back.
That’s right, punk. Do your job.
Todd opened the back door, hefted out a middle-aged man, and leaned him on the side of the car. The man’s hands were cuffed behind his back. His skin was pale, his eyes wide, and his face sweaty. Nathan realized the man was very ill.
“How do you feel, sir?” Megan asked.
“My chest. It hurts,” he wheezed. “I have heart problems.”
“How long has this been going on?”
He coughed. “Two hours or so.”
“We’ll get the stretcher,” Megan said to Todd. “I want to hook him up to the monitor.”
Todd jerked the man forward. “You heard the lady. Let’s go.” He strode to the truck as the man hobbled at his side.
“I said we’d get the stretcher!” she called after them.
“Hey!” Nathan shouted.
“Too late,” Megan said. “They’re in now.”
Nathan touched Megan’s elbow. “Are you going to be okay with that cop in the back of the ambulance?”
She tossed her head. “Psh. I’ll be fine. Why?”
“He’s a jerk.”
Megan laughed. “Tell me how you really feel.” She walked to the ambulance.
Nathan caught up with her. “I’m not kidding. I’ll take the patient if you want me to.”
“You just want the cardiac.”
“I don’t care about the cardiac,” he said. “That jerk cop was getting fresh with you.”
She grabbed the door handle and looked back at him. “That jerk cop is my husband.”
Thunderstruck, Nathan raised his eyebrows as she climbed into the truck. He put his sound foot on the back step and lifted the other up next to it, trying to make the movement as smooth as possible.
Todd connected the handcuffs between the patient’s wrist and himself and plopped onto the bench alongside. Megan climbed over him, ignoring his grope of her leg, and moved around the stretcher. As she interviewed the patient and placed the pulse oximeter on the patient’s finger, Nathan wrapped the blood pressure cuff around the patient’s arm. The machine whirred as the cuff inflated. He attached the 12-lead heart monitor.
Megan opened a nasal cannula and attached the tubing to the wall. “Sir, I’m going to give you some oxygen to help you breathe,” she said, slipping it over his ears.
Nathan pointed to the bags of intravenous solution. “You want Lactated Ringer’s or saline?”
“Saline,” she said. “Sir, my partner’s going to start an IV line.”
Nathan pointed to the IV supplies by the jerk cop. “Give me that bucket.”
Todd huffed and handed it to him. Nathan peeled open an IV pack and unrolled the tourniquet.
Megan handed the patient some pills. “Chew these, sir. It’s aspirin.”
She studied the blipping green line on the screen. “Heart rate 40,” she murmured as she withdrew her keys from her pocket and unlocked the med box. “90 over 60,” she said when the blood pressure cuff hissed. She put her stethoscope in her ears and listened to his breath sounds.
“You’ve got a line,” Nathan said as blood flashed into the IV tube.
“Just enough fluid to keep it open, please,” she said, looping her stethoscope back around her neck. He allowed the fluids to drip, and she moved beside him holding a medication syringe. “Sir, I’m going to give you some medicine for your heart.” She met Nathan’s eyes. “Pushing atropine. Let’s move.”
Nathan jumped out the back of the ambulance and jogged around to the driver’s seat. Buckling his seatbelt, he opened the small window between the cab and the box. He eased the truck out onto the highway, listening to the conversation in the back in case he needed to upgrade to lights and sirens.
“So you’re stuck with Peg Leg for five months,” said Todd’s voice.
“Don’t call him that! Be quiet now. I have to work.”
FIRE STATION 6
APRIL 13, 2013. 2:30 AM
Fire Station 6 was dark when Nathan backed the ambulance into the bay. He killed the engine and rubbed his face, his eyes stinging from fatigue. His first day on C shift had been one call after another.
“I’m exhausted,” Megan groaned. “Have you stationed here before? Do you know where everything is?”
He grabbed his bag. “Yeah, I’m good.”
The EMS room was separated from the fire station by the truck bay. Megan unlocked the door and stepped into the darkness. Nathan leaned on the doorframe. The air smelled of CaviCide disinfectant and stale Chinese food. Her keys jangled against a table as she fumbled with the lamp, and he wondered why she didn’t flip on the overhead light.
When the lamp finally clicked on, he followed her into the room. It was small, especially compared to the fire department side of the station. A table with three chairs sat near the window that looked out to the truck bay. Two recliners had been crammed into the corner in front of a television, and a bunk bed lined the wall. Megan retreated into the bathroom.
Nathan stood in the center of the room. It was awkward being alone with a new partner. He was unfamiliar with her habits and levels of neatness and modesty, or the lack thereof. Dropping his bag, he sank into a recliner and raised the footrest as he listened to her brush her teeth. He flipped on ESPN and watched the recap of the Braves vs. Washington Nationals baseball game he had missed.
Megan left the bathroom, and Nathan kept his eyes trained on the TV. It was her turn to stand disconcertedly in the middle of the room.
“Um?” she mumbled.
He turned his head to her. Her hair fell freely down her back, and she held her boots.
“I usually sleep on the bottom bunk, but if you need it …” Her voice trailed away, and she lifted her shoulders.
Nathan kicked the recliner’s footrest so that the chair popped back into an upright position. Striding to the bunk bed, he launched himself to the top bunk.
“Listen,” he said, swinging his legs over the side and leaning his elbows on his knees. “If—”
“I was just trying to be nice!” she interrupted.
“That wasn’t nice. That was patronizing.” He leaped down next to her. “I want you to assume my ability. Assume I can do anything you can. Isn’t that what you want from them?” he said, pointing toward the fire department side of the station.
“Do that for me,” he said. “I’ll let you know if I can’t handle something, but I’ve been with this service for three months and Retton County for six, and I have yet to find anything I have a problem with.”
Megan sat on the bottom bunk and dropped her boots. “You work for Retton County? Do you like it?” She pulled off her socks.
Nathan noticed her pink toe nail polish before she tucked her feet underneath her. “They’re good people.”
“Are they hiring?”
“Yeah. Why? Are you looking for something else?”
“I’m not leaving here. I just want a second job.”
He turned off the TV. “You ready for lights out?”
In the dark, Nathan shuffled to the bed and climbed onto the top bunk. “Why do you want a second job?” Lying on top of the covers, he rested his arms behind his head.
The bed frame shook as Megan slid under her blanket. “Have you ever noticed how there are so few older paramedics? I mean, sure, there’s Jerry—I think his first ambulance was drawn by horses—and Mark and Patty are fantastic medics, but most are just younger?”
“This isn’t a forever job. Not without a degree. I’ve got to think ahead, you know? I want to go back to college, and I need money for that.”
Her voice was soothing. He stared at the ceiling and pictured her in his mind. “What will you study?”
“I don’t know.”
He waited for her response, but it never came. The room was quiet; only cricket song broke the silence. He found it difficult to sleep in his prosthetic, but he always kept it on while on duty. He hated when people saw his residual limb. Other soldiers in his rehab program had seemed confident, almost proud, of their limb loss. They had worn shirts with sayings like, ‘Go, go, gadget leg,’ or ‘You should have seen the shark,’ or ‘You’ve got me stumped.’ But Nathan, in his Army unit t-shirt, had kept to himself, only sharing his difficulties with a counselor and his civilian buddy, Sam.
Megan’s breathing was slow and even. Nathan carefully rolled to his side, trying not to shake the bed and wake her. The darkness pressed around him, making visions of the past sharper and clearer.
TWO YEARS EARLIER
NANGALAM, PECH DISTRICT, KUNAR PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN
12 APRIL 2011. 0650 ZULU
Sergeant Nathan Thompson sat at a plywood table in the barracks and examined his rifle’s star chamber.
He stretched his back and took up the cotton swab once more.
Specialist Lowell walked in and dropped to his cot. “It’s clean, Doc.”
“You can tell from over there?” Thompson said and puffed air into the chamber.
“You’re wasting your time.”
Thompson turned around and held up the blackened swabs. “There’s carbon in it.”
“Still wasting your time,” Lowell said, with a sly smile. He lay back on the blanket, rested an arm behind his head, and propped his boot on his knee. He fanned his face with a piece of paper. Thompson turned back to his rifle.
“You’re wasting time you could be using to read this letter,” said Lowell.
Thompson’s head snapped up. “A letter?”
“It’s got girly writing on it. Heather Shipley, 97 Primrose Court—”
Grinning, Thompson pushed away from the table and vaulted across the room. “Give me that!”
Lowell jumped up laughing and hurdled over the cots. “I bet there’s naked pictures in there!” He held up the envelope to the bare light bulb. “You gonna share if there’s pictures?”
“Fuck, no!” Thompson yelled and lunged for the letter.
Lowell hooted and punched him. “It’s probably—”
“Mine!” Thompson tackled him and seized the letter. Lowell punched him once more before leaving the room, his laughter echoing through the hall.
Thompson tucked the letter safely into his pocket and put his rifle back together. Sitting on his cot with his back against the wall, he crossed one boot over the other. He felt a little silly, like a kid away at camp. He studied his name, the APO, and her return address, all written in bubbly handwriting. Warmth filled his chest.
Paper instead of e-mail. Nice touch.
He slit the envelope.
This is really hard to write. You’ve been gone a long time. I’ve changed, and I just don’t feel the same way about you anymore. I’ve met someone really nice. You’re a good man, and I know you’d want me to be happy. When you get back, maybe I’ll see you around.
Thanks for the good times,
Shock pounded his heart. Thompson read the letter twice more and scrambled for his phone.
“Hey, this is Heather! Leave me a message.”
Words caught in his throat, and he pressed the end button.
Text, just text.
Nathan Thompson: I got your letter. Do you really mean that?
He tossed his phone on the bed and ran his hands over his head, the stubble of his high and tight rough against his palms. His phone vibrated.
If she was there for the text, why didn’t she take my damn call?
Heather Shipley: yes i mean it
Nathan Thompson: Let’s talk about this. I’ll call you. We can talk now.
Nathan Thompson: Please.
Heather Shipley: no. plz dont call any mor
This isn’t happening. This can’t be happening.
He read the letter again, wiping his nose on the back of his hand.
Thompson crushed the letter and stormed from the barracks. The smell of burning shit turned his stomach. An Afghan National Army soldier monitored the burning of the day’s waste, wielding a stirring stick and kindling paper. Thompson threw the letter into the flames and stalked away from the miasmic smoke. He looked up at the mountains, one jagged ridge after another, after another. As if God had raked His fingers through the rock. And turned His back.
Lowell fastened his helmet for patrol. “You okay?”
Thompson lifted his body armor over his head and rested it on his shoulders. “Heather left me.”
“What? That sucks, man.”
“She sent a fucking letter,” Thompson said, pulling on a strap. “Didn’t even call to tell me with her own voice.”
Lowell scowled. “What a bitch.”
Thompson bristled at Heather being called a bitch, but he reminded himself she was not his girl anymore. His heart sank lower. “All I want is a girl who’s loyal. I guess that’s too much to ask.”
Lowell shook his head. “When I get back, all I want is a girl. I don’t care what kind. And lots of beer. Loyalty later.” He slapped his hand on Thompson’s shoulder. “Forget her, man.”
“Yeah.” Thompson secured his helmet and sighed.
Sgt. Thompson and Spc. Lowell joined up with six other American soldiers, an interpreter, two Afghan National Army soldiers, and one Fucking New Guy. Thompson tried to pay attention during the briefing, but it was the same old information. He kept seeing Heather’s smile, her strawberry blond hair, the dimple he had loved to kiss.
They left the wire. Thompson followed Lowell down the road, rifle at low ready across his chest and resting on his gear. It had rained the day before, and the mud sucked at his boots. The road needed grading again.
A wall separated the road from a field of knee-high corn. Field followed field, merging into a green smudge in the distance. At the valley’s edge, the fields terraced into the mountain, creating stripes up the summit where mist swirled around the peak.
A motorcycle with a coughing engine zoomed by. Lowell waved, but the rider ignored him. The locals never acknowledged the soldiers. Women passed with lowered eyes. Men walked in stony silence, their faces as drawn and grizzled as the mountains. Thompson stared at their henna-dyed beards, wondering how Kool-Aid red could be seen as dignifying.
A boy with a long, thin stick in his hand shooed cows down the road near the wall. He ran to the FNG. “Sharana! Sharana!”
“Uh, yeah,” he nodded. “Cow. Moo.”
The boy held out his palm and shook it. “Sharana!”
The interpreter laughed. “He wants candy.”
“I got some. I got some,” Lowell said, digging in his gear. He tossed the kid two butterscotches and a Tootsie Pop. The boy grinned and raced after his cows.
The team walked past mud huts stacked one on top of the other. Constructed of formed blocks and rocks from the countryside, the huts clung to the mountain, defying gravity and anything else that would attempt to tear them down, a mirror of the people who lived within them.
The soldiers reached the wall’s end and trekked across a small field toward the river. A snake raced away, parting the new grass. Thompson made a mental note to put up more plastic in the barracks. If the snakes were out, then it wouldn’t be long before they attempted to hunt the mice under his cot.
The bank was strewn with boulders. Trees cast deep shadows, raised the humidity, and dropped the temperature a few degrees. Though the mercury only hovered at 70, the 60 pounds of heavy gear Thompson carried as a combat medic pulled enough sweat to soak his shirt. His legs ached. His shoulders hurt. Listening to the rush of the water, he checked for snakes and then rested on a boulder.
He had met her at a party. Mesmerized by the gleam in her eyes and the swing of her hips, he had danced with her until early morning. After that first night, they had been inseparable. They had shared a love for the outdoors and spent hours kayaking, canoeing, and geocaching together. But hiking had been their passion. They had bought matching gear and hiked every trail they could find: flat lands, piney woods, grassland, mountains, camping along the way. He was saving money for a through-hike of the Appalachian Trail upon his return stateside.
They had shared their hopes and dreams. Planned their future. He had met her family, taken her little brother fishing, shaken hands with her dad. She had blushed when she first saw him in uniform and had kissed him tearfully when he left.
What am I doing here?
“Come on, Doc,” Lowell called. “Snap out of it.”
Thompson shrugged but made no move to stand. “I was gonna buy a ring when I got stateside.”
“You’ve got more life to live before you tie the knot, man.” Lowell spat on a rock.
Thompson watched the spittle ooze down the rockface.
The group moved on, picking their way up the bank and toward another road. This one had better drainage than the first. The sand and gravel were dry and dusty, and his boots crunched as he walked.
A rooster crowed in the village ahead and was echoed by two others.
Lowell laughed ruefully. “They lied to me.”
“Who lied to you?” Thompson asked.
“Everyone. My entire life I thought roosters only crowed when it was time to get up. But they crow all the fucking time. If I never hear another damned rooster, it’ll be too soon.”
Thompson kicked a rock. “I should have Skyped more. I should have called.”
“Naw, man, you’ve been busy. We’re fighting a fucking war here. A chick like that would have left you anyway. It’s just the way some are.”
“We’re not fighting a war,” said Thompson. “We’re humping gear up a mountain or giving out candy or cleaning weapons. Nothing ever happens.”
“Shut up, man. Don’t say that.”
“I’m tired of waiting. Just let me fucking do something.”
“Yeah,” Lowell said. “It’s the quiet that messes with your head.”
She sat on the wall, the Afghan girl. Her leg dangled over the side, her loose shalwar trousers pulled up just enough to reveal her bare ankle and the curve of her calf. She was too womanly to be a child, too brazen to be married. She met his eyes and smiled, a dimple forming near her mouth. A dimple like Heather’s. Her fingers, dusty and graceful, touched the edge of her white hijab.
It had been a long time since he’d kissed a girl.
Lowell brushed past.
Thompson elbowed him and nodded toward her. “Give her some candy.”
Lowell smirked. “Why?”
“Hearts and minds.”
“And ankles.” Lowell dug out more candy and walked to the wall.
Swirling, dusty blue.
On his back, Thompson looked at the sky.
What the fucking hell was that?
The rooster had stopped crowing. The river had stopped running. His boots did not crunch any more. Thompson rolled to his side. Noxious chemicals burned his nostrils. He tasted metal. His eyes burned.
Fucking gear! Where’s my rifle?
A squealing buzz filled his ears. He shook his head, but it continued. Lowell lay face down on the dark red road.
The road’s red. Shit! The road’s red!
Thompson pushed himself up and fell back into the dust. He couldn’t run. He couldn’t stand.
Forearm over forearm, he dragged himself across the dirt.
His shoulders strained. Propelled him forward. Gravel, rocks, ceramic shards flayed his skin through torn shirtsleeves. Blood, sweat. Smear and soak. He touched a white cloth, now red. Tattered and torn.
A soldier and the FNG ran to him. They moved their mouths as if shouting, but he couldn’t hear them over the buzz.
Get me to Lowell!
They understood. He looked down on Lowell’s still form.
He’s fucked up bad! Where’s my tourniquet?
The FNG grabbed the release ring of Thompson’s vest.
What the hell are you doing? I need that shit for Lowell!
Thompson punched the FNG.
His gear was gone. The road was gone.
Dust pelted him, and the throb of rotor blades pulsed through his chest.
Only a Chinook feels like that. Lowell needs a Chinook.
A ceiling this time.
The buzzing had ceased, and disinfectant pricked his nose.
A woman’s face hovered over him. “Welcome to Germany.”