Authors: Holly Hart
A doctor hurries up, snapping his latex gloves on. "Status," he says, simply, and I tell him what I know. "Left leg, bullet lodged in the femoral artery. He's lost a lot of blood. O positive."
"Okay," he nods seriously, contemplating his course of action. "At least we've got a lot of that. Let's take him to the operating theatre, stat."
More running, six of us pushing the wheeled bed – a resident doctor, the surgeon and four nurses. There should be more us really, for something as serious, but we're stretched thin as it is, and this will have to do.
"Where's my blood?" I hear the doctor shout, and then see a nurse hurry up with two bags. "Okay, good – let's get it in."
I don't remember a lot of the surgery, just flashes here and there – the bullet coming out, the sound it makes as it falls into the metal tray by the side of the operating platform. I remember the moment he crashes, and we all stand back and the doctor shocks him with the paddles, the joy I feel as the heartrate monitor suddenly blinks back to life. And then it's like my mind shuts down, and suddenly I'm sitting by his hospital bed, holding his hand, and I've got no idea how I got here.
"Katie?" A voice penetrates my consciousness, but only barely.
"Katie?" It comes again, and it's familiar – I know I've heard it before. "Katie, are you alright?" It's Sophie. She rests a worried hand on my shoulder. "Come on, let's get you out of here."
I look up her, eyes red with prickling tears. I hear my voice as though it's coming from the other end of a long tunnel, or underwater. "Oh, hey Sophie," I say weakly, "what's up?"
"What are you doing here?" she asks. "The operation finished hours ago – he should be okay, shouldn't he?"
I can hear the concern in her voice, because I've been there too. Sometimes a patient gets under your skin, there's no rhyme nor reason why any one case in particular gets to you, it just does – and I know exactly what she must be thinking: that for me, this was the one..
I've stood in Sophie's shoes before, over here and in emergency rooms back in the states, looking at one of my colleagues who's flirting with the dark side of this profession – forming an emotional connection with a patient who could die at any time. I look back down, see my hands and noticed for the first time that they are covered in blood. My eyes keep travelling, and I see that my blue scrubs are soaked in the sticky, drying substance.
"Come on," she says reassuringly, "let's get you back home. We need to get you into a shower."
I know I need to do what she's telling me, but I can barely operate my limbs. I know I need to tell her
this man means so much to me, but just standing up feels like running a marathon, and I need Sophie's support, which she gives me without hesitation.
"I'm sorry, Sophie," I sniffle. "This one’s different," I say, trying to explain why, but stopping in the face of my anguish.
"Nonsense. We all get like this sometimes," she says, hushing me. "Come on, let's go."
"Hold on a sec." I reply. "I just need to do one thing."
Sophie shoots me a weird look, but lets go of me nonetheless. I walk over to the man whose life I've been living and dying alongside for the past six hours and look down at his sad, weathered, battle scarred face, and shudder as I think of the horrors he must have lived through out in the field.
The sandy mop of hair on his head seems so innocent, so at odds with his job – to be a trained killer in the employ of the United States government –that until I cast my mind back to how caring a lover he was, I find it hard to reconcile in my mind. I lean forward, and a loose strand of my hair brushes his face before I quickly pull it back. I pull back the fabric of his blue hospital gown and find what I'm looking for.
The dogtags, sat on the skin of his chest all this time are warm to my touch. I pick them up and read them.
Sgt Mike Carson, U.S. Army.
This whole time, I never knew his surname.
my legs and I don't know where the hell I am. I try and cast my mind back to the last thing I can remember, but to be honest – I can't remember anything. My mind is just a sea of dense grey fog, it feels like every time I try and get it working the motor turns over once, but then just coughs and dies.
My throat. God, I'm thirsty. I turn my head, look to the side, and try and figure out where the hell I am, desperate for some water. It's sure as hell not some dusty Afghan mountain side, so at least I've got that going for me – but as I struggle to open my crusted eyelids, my blood runs cold as I begin to contemplate whether I might have been taken captive.
I suddenly remember who I am – Mike Carson, Sgt, U.S. Army, military ID number 756 4561. Are those going to be the last words I say for the rest of my life? Is some terrorist going to hoist me up by my manacled hands and leave me dangling, desperately trying to keep myself up on my tiptoes as he beats me with a stick, and I scream in pain: "Mike Carlson, Sgt, U.S. Army, ID number 756 4561".
That would be a hell of a way to go.
I never thought opening my eyelids would be such a challenge, but it feels like they're cemented shut, and I try and pry them open until, exhausted, I slump back in frustration – cursing a body that’s failing me. Suddenly, other sounds, other sensations begin to make themselves known – some welcome, some definitely not. I can hear the gentle whirr of a ceiling fan, and what sounds like the monotonous hum of an air conditioning unit somewhere in the room, and the sound gives me a delicate thread of hope to hang on to. After all, how likely is it that the Taliban would've put me up in an air-conditioned hospital?
"Hey Katie, I think he's moving," I hear an undoubtedly American voice call out from the other side of the room. "Get the poor kid some water, will you."
. Yes, I'd kill for some water. And she's American – that's a good sign, isn't it? I try and open my dry, cracked lips, try and get my tongue moving, but everything's such an effort – it feels like I'm trying to climb my way out of a morass of heavy, sodden mud with one arm tied behind my back. I feel a soft hand cradle the back of my head, lifting it gently.
"Here you, sweetie," The woman says with a voice like honey, tipping a paper cup of cool liquid to my mouth. It tastes like the nectar of the gods, and I try and gulp it down but just end up inhaling it and spluttering; but I don't care, I just keep going.
"Take it slow." The soft, calming voice says, and I focus on the sound, "don't worry, we've got plenty – we're not in any danger of running out."
I’ve heard that voice before…
My tongue finally lubricated, I try and say something. "Where –," I croak, and the woman presses the cup back to my lips. This time I take her advice and sip gently, gratefully. She's done this before. I try again. "Where am I?" I ask hoarsely, desperate to know the truth. "Did they take me?"
"Hey now, calm down." My savior's voice croons. "You're safe, don't worry. You're at Bagram Forward Operating Hospital, you've been under for about a week. We weren’t sure if you were going to make it, soldier," the voice says, and although I can’t be certain it seems to crack with emotion.
"Tommy?" I ask, dreading the truth, everything flooding back to me in a wave of violent, bludgeoning emotions that seem to threaten my very sanity. My brain starts screaming at me, it doesn't want the truth, tells me I should close my ears, block it out. But I can't – the rational side of me needs to hear it.
The long pause confirms my darkest fears before she even opens her mouth. I can almost picture her tortured face. How many broken, battered soldiers has she had to deal with? How many times has she had to dole out the bad news?
"I'm sorry…" she whispers, her voice heavy with emotion, and I barely hear another word.
he base is dustier
today than I can ever remember. Sandstorm season must be right around the corner, I realize and the thought fills my belly with dread as I trek round looking for an eighty pound German Shepherd called Jake who last saw me dragging him away from his dying owner – at least, that's what he'll remember. That is, if I ever find him. At this rate, that's not looking likely.
I pass by another conurbation of identikit plywood housing units that look every bit as worn as the one that I was assigned to over nine months ago, and look down at the crumpled piece of paper in my hand.
South quadrant, Unit D-19, room five.
The handwriting's mine, it's messy and barely legible even to me. My feet are sore and dusty after hours of walking around this massive growth of men, weapons and material in the middle of the desert, and I'm just hoping that I've finally made it to the right place. I look at the signpost to confirm I'm in the right neck of the woods, and then my eyes track along the row of plywood huts. Thinking about it, they look kind of like dormitories at a summer camp – but not any kind of summer camp that I'd ever want to go to.
D-16, D-17, D-18 – my eyes trace their way along the tired, worn out row of houses until I finally see it, the building on the corner. I pick up the pace, crossing my fingers in the vain hope that that might somehow swing the odds in my favor. I don't think I can bear looking at Mike's grieving face any longer unless I come back with his dog.
He knows it's not my fault that Jake's not by his side – I did what I had to do in a difficult moment – but knowing and believing deep down are two entirely different things. In just a couple of seconds, I find myself at the front door of the shack, and test it. It's not locked. I push it open and step through.
"Hello?" I call cautiously. Soldiers don't tend to like it when you stroll into their living quarters without asking – even if you are a pretty girl. It's probably best that I don't take my chances like that – after all, some of these guys are on a hair trigger after spending months on the front line. Better safe than sorry, especially if that means avoiding getting punched in the face. I've heard it happen…
No response though, so I stride more confidently into the hut. It's no more luxurious on the inside than it looks from the outside, so it's more or less the same as mine. From a room down the hall I hear heavy death metal blaring, and I hope to hell that that's not the one I have to knock on.
Thankfully, it's not. I walk down the corridor, stopping next to the room with the number five scrawled on it in marker pen. It's not exactly the way the Hilton does it, but it's just as effective, I guess. I rap my knuckles against the thin door.
"Hello? Is anyone in there?" I ask nervously, knocking again. I'm in half a mind to just walk through the door when I finally hear something stirring inside.
"Fuck off off, Dawson," a tired, irritable voice calls from inside. "I just fucking put my head down, alright? What does a guy has to do to get some rack time around here?"
I cringe – that isn't exactly the kind of response I was hoping for. On the plus side, I guess, at least someone's inside. "Private Jones?" I call, voice quavering, "you in there?"
A decidedly less irritable voice replies. I think he's realized that I'm a woman. It sounds bad, but the ratio out here is about thirty to one – men to women, that is – not the other way around. I've never got more attention in my life than I have here.
I wish I could say was me, but I'm pretty sure it's just that I’m one of the very few pieces of pussy left on this base, and definitely one of the few not shacked up with somebody…
"Who is it?"
"I'm Katie – I work in the base hospital –," I begin, but before I can finish I hear him standing up inside, knocking things over in his haste to get to the door.
"Hold on," he calls, "I'm coming."
I'm not going anywhere.
He opens the door hurriedly doing up his belt buckle, but still topless. He gives me what I think is meant to be a ravishing, alluring smile – but the last thing on my mind is falling in bed with this kid.
"How can I help you, ma'am?"
"You were down at the hospital when the copter went down, weren't you?" I ask, watching his face fall as he realizes I'm here on business, not pleasure.
"Yes ma'am," he replies, more surly and less Casanova now he's realized that there's no chance of him getting laid. "That was a heck of a fuck up. Hey," he continues with a look on his face, "why you here?"
All I can think is that this kid had better never play poker. He's got the kind of face that gives away everything he's thinking about, and he’d get ripped apart.
"Sure was," I agree with a smile, my heart racing now that I'm finally getting somewhere. "You were one of the guys who held the dog, weren't you?"
"Why are you asking, if you don't mind me asking, ma’am?" he says with a suspicious look on his face. I think my luck is beginning to run out with this kid, so I push on as quickly as I can.
"Hey, you look tired," I offer, trying to make peace. "I'm sure you want to get back to bed, get that rack time, right?"
He nods and I press on. "Listen, I'm just trying to do one of my patients a favor, you know? He was out there for months with this dog, and it's breaking his heart not to know where the poor thing is or whether it's okay…"
"Wait, you're looking after Sgt Carlson?" The bare chested kid asks, his face suddenly lighting up. "Hell, lady – you should have said. Man, that dude's crazy."
"What do you mean?" I ask, confused.
He looks at me like an idiot. Maybe I am, but to be fair to myself – I usually try to be – I
spent most of the last couple of days trying to keep the sergeant – once my lover – alive.
"Haven't you heard what he did?" He asks me, his jaw dropping that someone might not have heard about
Sgt Mike Carson.
"Not really, we don't get much gossip down at the hospital," I admit. "Fill me in." Usually, I imagine, he'd have had a field day with an opportunity for innuendo like that, but his face was so full of delight that he could tell the story to someone new that he didn't even seem to notice.
"I heard they're going to put him up for the Silver Star," he says.
"That's a pretty big deal, right?" I ask. Again, the soldier standing in front of me looks at me like I'm an idiot, and this time I'll admit – I deserve it. In my defense, I've been working sixteen hour shifts for weeks now and I'm exhausted, because I'm not usually that stupid – I have heard of the Silver Star before, I don't know how that slipped out.
"A pretty big deal?" he mimics, his face a picture of bemusement. "You're damn right it is. It's only the highest military honor the army can give..."
"So what did he do? It must have been pretty impressive, right?"
"Right," he agrees, and seems to relax now that we finally found some common ground.
"Impressive doesn't really cover it. This guy fought off hundreds of fucking Taliban. There were just two of them – and the dog, of course – on this hill, and they found dozens of the bastards lying on the ground. He put bullets in them all, man. I mean –ma’am.."
My stomach turns a bit. I'm a nurse, after all, not a soldier, so all this glorifying of death doesn't always sit completely right with me. I think the kid can kind of sense that, because he's quick to mollify me.
"Trust me, this guy saved hundreds of lives. He's a god damn hero."
"How?" I ask.
"He was up there doing overwatch." He says, looking at me expectantly. It quickly becomes clear to him that I have absolutely no idea what that means.
"It was just him, his buddy and the dog up on that hill, but there was a base about two clicks up the road, and they hadn't finished building the walls up yet. If they hadn't given those guys the warning, trust me – the hospital would have been a hell of a lot busier than it was."
I blink, and suddenly I can see Mike up there on that rocky hill, firing away at an insatiably aggressive and violent enemy and I realize exactly what kind of guy my patient is. The kid's right. He's a hero.
"What about the dog?" I press. "What happened to it?"
"They took it to the pound." The kid says, looking at me doubtfully. I don't know if you'll get it back."
"Why not?" I ask desperately – the last thing I want is to have made it this far only to fall at the final hurdle. I don’t know how I’ll be able to go back to Mike without Jake’s leash pressed between my hands.
"There's a shortage of dogs. It'll probably already have been sent back out to the field…"
"They wouldn't do that, would they?" I ask, horrified. Sometimes I forget that I'm on a military base in the middle of a warzone, but that just seems so heartless to me. Any fool could see the bond between Mike and his dog. It would be frankly evil to break them apart.
He looks at me sadly, as though he doesn't have the heart to break the truth to me. The look's enough.
I know what I'm up against.