Chapter 1 - A Single Moment

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CHAPTER 1


JOHN


Sometimes, it takes just one moment to change everything.

This was mine.

The morning started off like any other: stiflingly hot. We got back late from an operation, one casualty: American.

You do the craziest of things when you're out there, with your and your buddies' lives on the line. I'm a medic with the U.S. Army – or at least I used to be.

One moment, you're playing ball in the desert sun, skins against shirts.

One moment, you're messing with your buddy, embarrassing him while he's trying to have a nice moment with his fiancée back home.

A moment later and you've got your hands in an open wound, trying to keep your best friend's intestines inside his mangled body.

Safe to say it was hard to fall asleep when I got back to camp. I laid there in my cot for hours, watching the ceiling grow lighter and lighter as the sun finally showed itself.

I remember it was quiet. It was way too damn quiet.

Then it happened, and it happened fast.

I was startled out of my cot by the sound of an explosion way too close for comfort. Maybe I was sleeping, maybe I wasn't. I grabbed for my weapon even before I pulled on my pants, and I was already out of the tent by the time I heard my platoon commander screaming a few yards east.

"Man down! Man down!"

I started sprinting down the hill towards the dark gray smoke, catching myself more than once on jagged rock fragments and fallen debris.

"He stepped on a mine—" Alex, one of our weapons guys, barely nineteen years old, started to explain when I came over and slumped down next to the injured. I was reaching for my rucksack when I saw the other man's bloodied face, the entire right side marred by third degree burns. It was Mick.

"Fuck," I swore, my voice strangled by the sounds coming from all around us. I assessed the rest of the damage, swearing again as I saw just how bad it was. "I need you Alex, hold this!" I yelled, trying to get the soldier, frozen with fear, to cooperate.

Shrapnel had exploded into Mick's calf, shearing off the bottom half of his right leg.

"Come on Mick; come on, dammit! Stay with me!" I yelled, my hands already fast at work. I stuck a morphine syringe in, as well as a saline drip to make up for the lost fluids. My hands were steady – they were always steady, no matter how hard my heart was slamming against my ribcage. "You aren't dyin' on me buddy, not today!"

Having spent the better part of the last nine years working as a medic overseas, first in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, you'd think that it would get easier: seeing so much shit every single day... smelling the soot and burning flesh of someone you were cracking jokes with hours earlier... feeling someone else's blood seeping through your clothes... it doesn't, not for me, and not for anyone I know.

Nonetheless, I was damn good at what I did, and what I did was borderline insanity. It had to be done; out here in the thick of things, it took one second, one moment, to change everything.

Right at that moment, with Mick, I was completely focused on the task at hand, determination written all over my face as I barked orders at my comrades. "Hang on man, this is gonna hurt like a son of a bitch," I muttered, and in one quick movement, I removed one of the metal fragments that had gone through his thigh, just above the amputation.

The soldier on the ground screamed in agony.

I didn't waste any time between putting in the saline drip and getting to work on Mick's injuries. I spent a few seconds sifting through the contents of my medic kit for a tourniquet, looping it around the stump. It was the best I could do for the leg out in the Afghanistan desert. I worked on the burns next, doing whatever I could to ease the pain.

I cut off the other man's clothes, only to find that a lot of the fabric was melted into the wounds. "Shit," I hissed. One of the worst things to treat is burns. That stench of burnt flesh, it's not one I'll ever forget, nor will I forget the pain in Mick's eyes, or the last words he said to me before it all went dark.

"Tell my mom... and Sadie... Tell them I love... Tell them I love them... take care..." I could just make out his words, and just as I was processing them there was another explosion. The blast propelled me backwards, and then...

Then there was nothing but red.

I could still hear the chaos, and I could feel a hot, wet substance in my hair and running down my face. I could feel pain and heat... I could smell my burning flesh and hear my screams. They seemed distant... like they weren't coming from my own throat... and then...

I don't know whether there was anyone around to hear me scream, but the moment before it all went black, I could've sworn I heard her voice. She was calling out to me... calling my name... I hadn't seen her in nine years.

"Carly?"

Then everything went black.

I woke up in the hospital two days later. I was in and out of consciousness for a little while, the morphine pumping into my system doing one hell of a job of keeping me sedated. Sometimes I'd wake up yelling and thrashing about, threatening to rip out my I.V. and tear at the bandages wrapped around my torso and part of my left arm.

I was in a bad place. The pain was too much. The nightmares were too much.

Then the nurse would come and fiddle around with my I.V. Not soon enough I'd fall into a restless, drug-induced sleep once more.

They said I was lucky; Mick and Alex didn't make it. Lying in that hospital bed a week after the accident, well enough not to need as much morphine but still in agony, I wanted to join them. I didn't want to be here. I wanted to be dead.

It hurt so damn much.

I was discharged three weeks later and made an appointment for a follow-up in two months. I didn't have much with me and I didn't have anywhere to go... except... no, there was no way... Nine years is a long time to be away; they probably didn't even remember me back in Ennis.

Still, it was the only place I'd ever felt at home.

So I drove.  

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