“Anything you can give me for this headache?” Paul clenched his teeth, hoping to reduce the lightning bolts behind his eyes. He tried to remember how delicious it felt to be pain-free.
“We’ll get you something.” Dr. Shapiro turned to his nurse. “I’m ordering a mild sedative for Paul so we can remove the shrapnel. When we’re done, find him a spot in the ward and—”
Paul interrupted. “I have a friend who was wounded. I think he was on the chopper with me. Do you know if Sam Sutton is here?” He looked at the doctor for reassurance.
Dr. Shapiro knew who Paul was talking about. He laid a hand on Paul’s arm. “He just got out of surgery. I’ll see if I can get him a bed next to you once the anesthesia has worn off.”
“Will he be okay?”
“Yes, we treated his hand.” That’s all Doctor Shapiro would share with Paul. He stood up and moved to the next patient in line. Paul struggled to prop himself against the wall, comforted only by a small pillow for his head and a thin blanket to minimize the shaking he couldn’t repress. He surveyed the scene that unfolded before him and waited for Sam to join him. The room was filled with muffled groans from dozens of young men, many in critical condition with life-threatening injuries, mutilated limbs, and grotesque facial wounds that replaced the once handsome, strong, vigorous appearance of youth. Some
screamed in agony as young nurses did their best to scrub lacerations and change dressings, while others lay silent with nothing more than a vacant, faraway look.
Paul watched a trim and confident nurse, her chestnut hair securely pulled away from her face in a tight bun that showed off her high cheek bones and almond-shaped eyes—rich, like the color of chocolate. She wrapped the final piece of clean gauze around the head of a distressed young soldier and whispered something in his ear. Whatever she had said appeared to relieve his agitation as a slight smile crossed his face and he surrendered his broken body to sleep.
The nurse walked over to Paul, pulled up a chair, and introduced herself. “Hello. My name’s Diane. Feeling okay? Any pain? It’s almost time for another dose of medication.” Amidst all the suffering, she smiled and waited for Paul’s response.
“Hey, hi, I mean hello, Diane. My name’s Paul. Waiting for my friend, Sam Sutton. Doc said they would bring him out soon. Ya know if his hand’s okay?” He hoped Diane might have more information about Sam’s condition, but she politely excused herself as she rushed to meet two medics entering with Sam, still groggy from surgery. They inched closer to Paul and the empty cot next to his. Diane’s gentle hand guided the corpsmen as they lifted Sam from the stretcher to make his transition to his bed as comfortable as possible.
Paul gasped aloud. He couldn’t help it. There was no way to silence the sound that rose from his throat when he saw his friend beside him, his right hand thick with bandages, wrapped as if to protect something that was no longer there. Paul slowly brought his hands to his face and felt the layers of soft bandages, only his eyes, nose, and mouth exposed. His head pulsated and his face felt tight and swollen. With crystal clarity, his mind flashed back to the instant when his life, when Sam’s life, were forever changed. His body tensed with the memory—the sounds, the heat, the explosions, the cries for help, and the smell of death all around them. He choked back tears and resolved to remain stoic and grateful that his wounds would soon be invisible. Unlike Sam, he had escaped a lifetime of disfigurement and the constant reminder of his brush with death.
Diane hovered over Sam as he stirred. She had played this part too many times the last nine months, soothing traumatized young men, convincing them that everything
would be just fine, even though it was not always the truth. She knew he would need a voice of reassurance when he realized where he was and the severity of his injuries. Sam’s eyelids fluttered. He tried to focus on his surroundings and take in the foul odor and musty smell of the tent, lined from one end to the other with broken bodies. The stench of disinfectant, humidity, and soiled linens stuck to the canvas walls of the makeshift hospital like glue, and he swallowed hard to prevent the nausea from taking hold of his body. Sam rolled his head to one side and looked at Paul, who appeared composed, determined, and calm.
“You made it, buddy. We made it,” whispered Paul.