Shards of asphalt ripped the barricade against the thin-walled trailer, throwing Brad from his bunk and a near-comatose sleep. He scrambled for his watch as the burst of sandbags outside pre-empted the claxon’s late warning. Another mortar shell erupted on the pavement, the sound muffled by a voice from the radio: Your butt OK? Better be, ’cause I need it, or there won’t be anything alive to transport outta here tonight.
“Damn, Elizabeth, I think that makes number 38, doesn’t it? Thank God for that wall,” Brad said.
“Enemy’s been busy, Major. But this one’s over, gotta be. And, like I said, I need you here at the hospital.”
Brad sat up on the bare floor, leaning his head against the bed, still below the level of the sandbag barrier outside. Another look at his watch: he was due two hours of daylight sleep, and last night’s flight transporting military patients had drained him.
“Come on, it’s only 3:00 PM, Cossar, and I was down pretty hard.”
“But that’s why you doctors make the big bucks,” she chuckled. “Oh, that’s right, forgot—you volunteered.”
The two-way radio cracked a bit as the last insurgents’ shell hit a random target within the base, the strike still close enough to pepper the sandbags and weaken Brad’s grip on the casing. He found the radio on the floor.
“And my four months is about up,” he said. “Bet you called just to see if my guts were splattered across the Sunni Triangle.”
“You trauma guys are really too smart, particularly the sexy ones. You can see right through a nurse like me, or at least you’d like to.”
Brad grimaced. All he wanted to do was crawl back up into bed.
“Relax, Cossar, I’ll make the next air transport to Landstuhl.”
“For now, I need some help in the ICU, so head on in to the hospital,” she said.
“Why can’t Haynes handle it?”
Brad stretched across his bunk and popped the pillow back into shape.
“Called in sick this morning. Said he had the flu, but if you ask me it’s probably the rough morning-after virus. Besides, Colonel Haynes never seems to be much help in the OR, unless it’s something simple. And if you add in this new issue.”
“Last week after lunch, one of my nurses thought she smelled something on his breath, even through a surgical mask. She wrote him up. He bit my head off when I showed him the report.”
“That’s the Haynes from Mississippi I know,” Brad said. “Continuing the party at work.”
Cossar laughed. “Said he had a cold and the smell was from sucking on menthol.”
There was quiet outside and from the radio. The shelling was over.
Then the quiet ended.
“Sorry, my dear Major. We just got word that the medical administrator has pointed a Black Hawk our way,” Cossar said.
Brad threw his feet to the floor and reached for clean underwear and socks from the small dresser near his bed. He tossed the radio to his left hand and stepped over to the sink.
“Shit. How many casualties on board the helicopter? Can’t be more than six.”
He picked up his toothbrush and opened a bottle of water.
“Not sure. Guess we’ll find out when it puts down.”
“OK, Lieutenant Colonel, I’m headed your way.”
He pulled the radio clear of his spit into the sink and ran the faucet, drowning a familiar Gee, thanks, sweety! as she clicked off.
Brad grabbed his Air Force PT gear and pitched the radio onto his desk. It landed atop Leslie’s photographs of wedding cake and groom’s cake designs, samples emailed a couple of days ago and waiting his approval. His reply using the base computer station would have to wait. The insurgents’ attack had changed things.
Skipping a shower, he threw on the blue running shorts, gray shirt, and tennis shoes, and stepped out onto the warm asphalt of September Iraq. After the All Clear command, the warning sirens were silent. There was little traffic as he jogged around the sandbags to the Air Force Theater Hospital. Situated near the 12-foot concrete wall that surrounded the base, the hospital was shielded against direct mortar strikes. He hoped that the only misery ahead was the load arriving with the Black Hawk.
Beads of sweat slid into the corner of his mouth as Brad reached the rear hospital entrance. He pushed his ID badge in the face of the security post then cleared the metal detector. Minor medical and clerical personnel jammed the rear hall. He slipped into the physician’s locker room, changed into surgical scrubs, and entered the main corridor. The wall-sized mural of Saddam Hussein greeted him, the deposed leader dressed in full military regalia as though still directing the Republican Guard that once trained on the premises. Al-Bakir Air Base had become Balad Air Base Theatre Hospital.
Brad pulled open the curtained entrance to Surgical ICU. He stared at the patient bays, all but one empty and separated by thin shelves stacked in disarray with supplies including vials of medication. Squeezed between two bays was a clerical work area: a six-foot folding table anchored by two computer monitors and littered with piles of papers and empty coffee cups, along with displaced boxes of surgical gloves and more syringes of narcotic pain medicine. The blue curtains serving as walls made the area appear no more high-tech than a movie set. Yet the equipment within and behind the drapes was state-of-the art for 2006, the same high standards required of the surgeons and nurses who worked there.
One of those nurses was Elizabeth Cossar, standing in starched, light-blue uniform, a below-the-knee skirt finished with beige stockings and black, thick rubber-soled shoes. Her commanding pose rivaled that of the fallen dictator.
“Lieutenant Colonel Elizabeth Taylor Cossar, I am reporting for duty,” Brad said. “And, my dear, it’s only ’cause I love you and you’re my favorite nurse over here.”
“That’s right, Major. You’ve learned, and you’re sweating … and I like that.”
“Glad you do, but I’m really too tired to sweat much more,” Brad said, raising an eyebrow.
“I jogged over here because you predicted disaster. But I’ve seen morgues more exciting than this place, Cossar.”
She turned away.
Brad imagined the disapproval on her face. “How much longer ’til the helicopter sets down?” he asked. “Do you think maybe we should clean up this mess before our guests arrive?”