Dear Nate

You were even younger than me when it happened, so I’m sure you wouldn’t remember, but my brother wrecked in almost exactly the same place when he was still in high school. Rolled his truck, over and over again. By the time it stopped moving, it looked like a piñata. He walked away without a scratch. Now, a decade later, we both know how that curve in the road broke a different family’s hearts.

You were pretty much the only one in school I didn’t know, and people loved you so much, I’m sure I was the only one you didn’t know. But I still felt it when you left. Now, when people go outside, even breathing seems louder than it did when you were here. Because we’re all in a hush. Because people are slower with their words now, and their tempers. And their cars.

I hear they’ll be putting on a 5k to help your family. I’m not good at much, but that’s something I can do for you. I know that kind of pain is something you’re familiar with; even though we didn’t do it at the same time, everybody’s talking about how you ran track. So I know you know the struggle of fitting school into sports and putting up with Holzhauer and fundraisers and only eating carbs. I know you know the pit that forms in your stomach every time you lace up your spikes. Every day, I struggle with the people you struggled with. That’s as close as I can come to knowing you. That’s as close as I come to feeling you. When I grind my spikes into the rubber and set, just like I know you did.

I feel you when I pass those two tree trunks on my way home, like you must have done a thousand times, when they were still whole. When I groan at the speed limit on 301, like you probably did that day. But now I stick to it. Not for my sake, but for yours.

It’s sunny and 75 degrees out now, so unlike the blizzard that it seems like a lifetime ago. But that’s just Ohio. It’s impossible not to think of you when the roads are shiny and the plows outnumber the cars, but we all have to remind ourselves on a day like today that it’s only been a few weeks. But we’re reminded.

You’re on walls and windows, you’re on doors and bumpers. You’re on everyone’s bio; on every cafe’s tip jar. And you’re in everybody’s head. God, let you be home. Above us, keeping us safe. It would feel cozier if you were. Though I guess in a way, you’re here no matter what. You’re carved around the trunks of those two trees that bid all of us to slow down and buckle up. You gaze up from the tripod marks left in the pavement outside the school by news crews, telling us to be gracious with each other. Because you never know when the drive home is going to be farther than you thought.

 

Need You

Corbin ripped open another coagulant packet with his teeth and quickly poured the powder into the puncture hole that ran neatly through the ribcage of the Pvt. laying beneath him in the dust. The soldier was overtaken by a spasm and thrashed beneath Corbin’s knee. Grimacing, Corbin shouted, “Sully! I need help!”

Several seconds later, another soldier slid to Corbin’s side. “Yeah?” he yelled.

“Hold him down.”

Sully grabbed the wounded soldier and pinned him to the earth. Corbin went to work immediately. His hands didn’t shake. He could have been operating on himself and his hands wouldn’t have shaken. He finished, pouring iodine over the wound. Then he plunged a wad of gauze into the puncture and taped a heavy bandage over it.

“I’ll get him to the corpsmen!” Corbin yelled. “Here, you’re empty!” As he hoisted the limp man onto his shoulders, Corbin handed Sully his rifle.

Seizing the fresh weapon, Sully raced off to the front line as Corbin carried the hurt soldier away from the firefight, towards the battalion’s staging area. It seemed the slowest sprint of Corbin’s life. A stray burst of bullets drummed into a concrete wall a few yards to Corbin’s left, toppling the feeble construction in a billow of dust and cement chunks.

Just as the makeshift base came into view through the maze of Yemeni streets, Corbin heard a hollow whistle above him. Without slowing, he glanced upward into the sky, and could just see the speeding blur of mortar shell as it arced over him and struck the ground at his feet.

***

A metallic boom shook the Emergency Room as the ambulance-bay doors swung open and struck the walls. A pair of paramedics rushed a gurney through the E.R. towards the elevator. On the gurney was a pregnant woman. Her face was beet-red and she was breathing sharply through nearly closed lips. Her whole body was tensed in place on the gurney. A trauma surgeon waiting on standby in the E.R. rushed to the paramedics.

“What have we got?” she asked as she helped wheel the woman to the elevators.

“Mary, 28, three centimeters dilated.”

“She shouldn’t be in this much pain.”

“Minor car crash set her in labor.”

“Okay; we have to check for trauma. Let’s get her to delivery, call in Dr. Schmitt and a trauma team.”

“Got it.”

“Mary? How we doin’?”

“Tense,” Mary gasped.

“Can you feel your toes?”

There was an unintelligible response.

“What’s that, Mary?”

“I n– need Corbin.”

“Okay. Who’s Corbin–”

The nurse’s voice was lost as Dr. Schmitt rushed to the gurney. “What have we got?”

“Minor car accident– she’s at three centimeters. Abdominal pain.”

“Okay. Here– this room right here. Yeah, she isn’t gonna do this naturally. Prep her for an epidural.”

“On it.”

“Trauma team’s here.”

***

The blast knocked out Corbin’s hearing and struck him like a hammer, but he refused to let it topple them over; at this point, the Pvt.’s compromised ribcage would probably have been crushed by the impact of being dropped. Lurching forward and sidestepping the coal-red crater, Corbin rushed through the smoke and covered the remaining distance to the compound gates.

Corbin rushed into the drab medical tent picketed just inside the fence, gagging as he was hit with the palpable reek of blood and rot. He deposited the Pvt. with the medics and left, picking up a new rifle as he prepared to rejoin Sully on the front line.

“Gates!” yelled an intense voice.

Corbin turned to look, and saw a commander running to him holding a satellite phone.

“A nurse called for you from your wife’s phone. She’s in labor. And it- she’s- they said she’s okay, but I guess she was in a car accident on the way to the hospital.

Panic branched through Corbin’s spine. “Wel- Ho… c-can I talk to her?”

Before the commander could respond, the cry, “Sully’s been hit!” blared in Corbin’s earpiece. Corbin’s eyed widened and he glanced at the commander, who heard it too.

Corbin’s feet started towards the front, then swiveled back. The already muted sound of gunfire in the distance faded away as he thought about the woman lying in pain in the hospital. He remembered the first time she hiccupped, “I love you,” on the sidewalk in front of a bar in D.C.

At the same time, he thought of the soldier bleeding in the dust somewhere. He remembered the man who pulled him out of a burning car what seemed like a lifetime ago. Corbin glanced once more at the commander, still holding the phone in his hand. I can’t help Mary, he thought. Sully needs me.

“We’re taking heavy losses— they’ve got a technical!” The voice was hysterical.

Corbin swore, then turned to race back to the front line.

“Gates,” the commander started. Corbin was already gone.

“Get ordinance on that technical,” he yelled over his shoulder as he ran.

Corbin rounded a corner into an alley that emptied into a little meat market ahead. Emerging, he saw several things at once. Firstly, his squad was hunkered behind a low wall along one edge of the market. At the other edge, the Yemenis had parked a truck-mounted machine gun— whose gunner was spraying a hail of rounds down the square. Lastly, Sully had somehow been pinned to a wall by a spur of rebar through his thigh. Corbin raced to Sully, emptying his magazine in the direction of the truck as he moved. All the while, a huge ovoid shadow spiraled around the market walls.

He grabbed Sully and ripped him free of the rebar—hoping he hadn’t torn an artery—and threw them both to the ground, rolling them into a culvert. The moment he did, the technical and its occupants burst open in a fiery hail of parts, machine and human. The market was shredded with splinters of rubble and bone.

There was a moment of shocked silence as the survivors outside of the culvert collected themselves. Then the gunfire resumed. Ignoring it, Corbin tended Sully.

***

“No… something’s wrong. Baby’s cocked.”

“It’s already too low for a cesarean.” A nurse pressed a hand to Mary’s belly.

“I may have to cut her.”

“You are NOT cutting me.” Mary forced past her clenched teeth.

“Then push this thing out!”

“Schmitt, she’s delirious; Cut her.”

***

As Corbin cut a shallow incision across the hole in Sully’s thigh, it finally clicked that his squad had retreated. There hadn’t been gunfire for several minutes. They left us, he thought.

As he locked the clamps open, Corbin peeked out and saw dozens of boots through the market stalls as insurgents picked the bodies of the Americans clean. Ducking back down, Corbin focused on Sully’s leg.

Holding a flashlight between his teeth, Corbin pressed himself flat onto his belly to reach the damage. Sully’s artery had been partially—but not fully—torn, creating a halfpipe-shaped gouge. Corbin used his thumb and forefinger to pull both sides of the artery together, creating a ridge, and clumsily ran five stitches through the resulting seam. Sully gurgled in pain through the rag in his mouth. Even mended, large beads of blood kept seeping from the inner flesh of the incision. Quickly, Corbin poured his last pack of coagulant in the wound, unlocked the clamps, took the gag from Sully’s mouth, and wrapped it tightly around his thigh.

By now the insurgents were on all sides of them. Even behind them in the buildings on their side of the street. Corbin looked at Sully, who nodded. Covering it with both hands, Corbin popped the button on Sully’s holster and slid the freed weapon into his hand. Likewise Sully found a magazine in a back pouch of Corbin’s pack. “That’s not gonna be quiet,” Sully whispered.

A cluster of footfalls was growing louder and nearer. “Ready?” Corbin asked.

“Yeah,” Sully groaned.

As he was pulled to his feet, Sully slapped the magazine into Corbin’s rifle. The rifle locked with a metallic slam. The insurgents tensed and whipped toward the noise. A hail of gunfire erupted through the market.

***

“Get it to the NICU.”

“Blood pressure’s falling.”

“NICU has no open units.”

“Then wheel a back-up unit from the basement!”

“Schmitt, she’s not breathing.”

“Get the baby out of here.”

“She’s flatlining.”

“Gel the paddles.”

“I’m not done closing her up.”

“Yes, you are. Clear.”

“No-”

“Clear!”

***

A dead weight fell against Corbin’s back, smearing his neck and shoulders with moist warmth. Corbin shrugged it off him, knowing full well it was Sully. He didn’t stop shooting. He could feel his chest plate splitting further and further open, the shards of ceramic pushing into his skin as they cracked into smaller and smaller pieces. The strike of the rounds against his armor quickly turned from dull pings to wet crunches. Still he kept shooting, until the receiver clicked on his rifle.

By then Corbin’s diaphragm was so traumatized that he hadn’t breathed properly in minutes.

Finally, a round caught him in the armpit, under his vest, and punched a hole through his torso. The force of the impact and sudden loss of nervous function bore him straight into the ground. He fell largely overtop of Sully, so that as Corbin looked up he saw Sully’s blank face, upside down, next to his own.

Ribs fractured, lungs filling, Corbin looked for the already-flown spirit of his best friend in the glass of Sully’s eyes. Diaphragm hemorrhaging, he lay a hand on Sully’s armor and gripped it like a lifeline.

“I’m… right behind you… buddy.” he choked out.

He pried the pistol from Sully’s hand. The insurgents had been nearing warily for the past minute, hoping him dead.

Corbin pushed himself to his knees, gun raised, face empty.

One final burst of gunfire erupted in the sleepy little meat market in Samir, Yemen.

Epilogue

“Good news,” said Dr. Schmitt as he entered the nursery holding a clipboard. “The baby’s green across the board. He’s cleared to leave as soon as you are.”

An exhausted voice cracked as it said, “He looks nothing like me.” But it was a chuckle.

The chuckle turned into a trembling sob. In between gasps came the whisper, “I can’t do this.”

Schmitt stirred uncomfortably. A look of pity and concern flashed across his face, then, “She thought you could.”

There was no answer.

“Listen, you’ve been through a significant trauma,” Schmitt eventually offered. “There’s no reason to do this on your own. If you need, I can refer an excellent therapist.”

“That’s not what I need.”

Schmitt nodded, understanding. “Well, if you change your mind.”

Corbin looked up from the baby in his arms.

“I need her.”