There was fire everywhere. Buildings blazed on the hot hellish lake of the make shift village. Men, women and children fighting and fleeing the smoke as the flames raged on. The stench of burning flesh and smoke bleached the air, suffocating all in its path. I searched for something, but I could not find it. The world of my mind was on fire and I was suffocating in the clouds of smoke.
A jolt of turbulence shook the plane waking from my nightmare. It was still dark outside or at least it still felt like it. The limited windows in the C-130 provided little help in understanding what the time was, and my watch was somewhere safe in my pack. I glance to the rattling of the medical supplies, which continued to shake with the planes motions. My girls still were asleep. The others in the plane remained motionless in the sleep.
A friendly voice called out in the hull. “Good morning sleeping beauty. Plane scare you awake?” His concern and nervousness dripped from his sweet southern voice. He smiled as I shook my head no.
“Bad dream then, sleepy head?”
I smiled and nodded as my mind tried to break free from the dream. I looked at my sleeping friends. He unbuckled his seat belt and sat next to me.
“Judging by how closely you are watching your gear and the medical supplies, I believe you are the woman I am supposed to keep you alive. You are the doctor, right?”
“Someone needs to at least try to keep you alive.” I whispered looking in his blue grey eyes. He was gentle and young. His uniform looked like identical to the one I was wearing except for the small flower that someone gave him. It poked out of his pants’ pocket. His sun toasted skin was warm and reminded me of better days when the world was not falling apart.
“Oh, so she does speak.” He cried nearly laughing at his own joke.
“More words than you’ll ever know.”
“You’re probably right bright eyes.” He said. God, he was so damn cheeky and cheery. Didn’t he realize we were going into a place that had been burnt and terrorized a thousand times? What the hell was he playing at with all the smiles and comfort?
Another voice spoke out in the darkness. This voice was less friendly. “Better get some shut eye. We are not going to get much once we touch down. Especially you doc. Base team already has about a hundred wounded and that is just on our team. Villagers are also going to be demanding your attention.”
I nodded and hoped that the annoyed voice knew that I agreed. I looked at this lieutenant’s eyes and smiled. He looked down and pulled me closely.
“Do you want to sleep together or cuddle?”
I looked at him completely dumb founded. He patted his chest. Part of me want to invoke the right not to indulge in comfort. I may have been a woman, but I was not a fragile person. I did not want anyone to see me scared. I wanted to be strong even though I was afraid.
He pulled me towards him and I sleepily laid my head on his shoulder. He rested his head against mine. These privates were some sort of stupid. They were fearless, reckless, and completely fine with it. I am going to kill the Major when I get back state side. The C-130 cradled and rocked us to a restful slumber.
“We need a medic to go with Charlie battery. We seem to keep killing or getting our medics killed. Charlie Battery, I hope that will change with you. We already scared off the first two medics, now we have. . .” he stopped and waved his hand at me. “That is where. . .” He turned his completely divided attention towards me. I smiled gently and answered his dumb question. My folder was in his hand. All he had to do was look at the name on the top to see who I was.
“Chartherz” I spoke up. All eyes fell on me and blank expressions filled the room. This was going to be a long tour. I spotted one face in the crowd and smile. Yes, I am a woman and yes, I do have breasts. God, she was staring but I knew better than to shrink away. Blondie was going to be fun breaking into my command, I knew that this tour was going to be hell. These little privates had already been briefed and had their noses in the air. I was just waiting to get back into my uniform. The way he lectured us on the mission it felt like his office was so far away and I was waiting for him to unlock his door because my uniform was still in the Major’s office.
“Yeah sure Doctor Chartherz is going over there with you all. She will be responsible for you and the villagers. If you have any questions, ask her. This is her mission and you are all to stay out of her way and protect her. Passed that, well, you will have orders from the ground regarding relieving the other teams. Saddle up and get ready to leave at the end of the week.” I tried not to laugh. He could have just said on Friday at first light.
The room stood and saluted as Major Thompskin walked out of the room. “Chartherz, follow me.”
I did as he commanded, and I walked with him to his office, which was not too far from where we had just briefed at. I had to follow him anyways because I still needed my uniform. It was stupid that they made me another uniform. I already had gear, but they had given me more. This station was never my favorite and I had made a vow never to come back here unless the world was on fire. Only two years out of medical school and look who winds up back here. There was something weird about returning back to a base I did not enjoy. It had been my first base but that feeling like something terrible and unfortunate was going to happen plagued my mind. I knew we were going to be discussing the mission and who I was receiving under my command. I hated these conversations.
His office was not a large room, but it was not small either. It was nicely furnished and looked like a typical officer’s desk. There were maps and some pictures. His computer showed a long and wordy email. My name and number were stuck in the subject bar of the email. I looked cautiously away from his computer as we sat across from each other. The desk was polished just like his belt buckle and the floor. He had a knack for keeping things in top shape and shining. The shine of desk was covered by a pile of files and folders. Most of them marked with operation numbers or names. Several had a red cross on them with last names.
My folder laid on top. My last name in bold with a yellow post-it note sticking out. I was curious to see what was in the file, but having read several myself, I knew what they would contain. My name, unit, rank, and all ten thousand pieces of paper I filled joining and while enlisted. My records were all held there in the little folder on the stack of all folders. I grabbed up my uniform and threw it on quickly. He was not the first I changed in front of and I doubted he would be the last. Once my uniform was put on correctly, I sat in the chair opposite of the stack of folder as the Major sat across from me.
“Dr. Chartherz, I am glad that you are assisting with this mission. I know you were one of the last to be offered the mission but honestly after comparing your records to the others that could have answered this call. I am sorry that we had to pull you in during your last year of reserves.” There was something in his voice that made me feel like that was a lie. He did not care who he pulled. It was either me or another candidate
“Its fine, Major. I know it’s my duty to serve when called.” I do not get a choice who calls or when the call comes. He was not the one necessarily really writing this order nor giving me the job. I just hope that the other files on the desk were going to be my unit. To my luck they were. He handed me the files for my review.
“Lieutenant Chartherz, I found several of our new combat medic specialist have nursing degrees. They are trained medics. I know that you were too. I think between your raising and ethics, you all will work well together. They truly are extremely hard-working women on this base and they are knowledgeable on the land and people. Check their file if you don’t believe me.”
“Captain Chartherz and these women are talented, I am sure they will do just fine.” I smiled but he seemed nervous and eager to get me and the files out of his office. “Major, you seem busy. If you do not mind, I will take their names and get to know my team. I have some details regarding our mission that they will need to know.”
He tossed two more files on the pile. “I am sending these two with you. They are green, but they are good. I know you all will have your hands tied up with work. You might be trying to save the world. These boys will just be there to keep an eye out for you all.”
“An eye out and not an eye on, correct Major?” If living had taught me anything it was to trust no one who was not a part of the original mission.
“Out, Captain. I am not interested in what you are doing. I read your missions opts and I really would not care, but I do because you are using my men. Now get out of my office and go say your hello and goodbyes. I told them all to hold back in the briefing room. Do not forget to complete digital logs and patient reports.”
“Okay Major.” I nodded and left the room. Digital logs about every person I came in contact with and used medical supplies on. He was definitely trying to micromanage my mission. The thing about combination missions is there is a devil in detail, but the elements of surprise and unpredictability were sometimes the only thing that kept us on the safe side of the margin of surviving.
I knew that was my dismal. He wanted me out of his office and I did not want to spend any more time in his office. This dumb Major probably could not read my rank, but it was not the time nor the place to argue. I needed to find my crew and introduce myself to them I was then on the hunt for the briefing room. That was the worst thing about going from active to reserves and then back to active duty. By the time you move from base to another base you forget where everything is on your original station. I try to retrace my steps from Major’s office. I got lost once but eventually got myself back to the room. Just like he said there were several people waiting for me in the briefing room. The men were joking about and looked like 160 kilograms of energy and muscle. The 68Ws looked at me with a mixture of distrust and hope. It was obvious that they were not interested in the two jokers next to them. Their solutes went up and I knew that this was going to be a long tour.
“You all tested really high. I am shocked that they didn’t place you out of my reach for this mission.”
“It doesn’t surprise me.” Answered the young blonde. She had a calm enough demeanor but there was something shifty in her movements. She looked like she was in a constant state of fight like nervousness. Like a horse getting into the gate before a race, she kept looking to the other women beside her. There was something about these nervous young women and I was determined to find out just what it was before we went wheels up on Friday.
“And who are you?” This private must have lost her mind. Obviously, she does not know how to read insignia. They all smelt green and no way at all ready.
“Private Valencia Jones.” Between her snippy attitude and slouched posture. She was praying to get court marshalled. This was going to be fun.
“Do you always run your mouth this much off to your superiors?” I showed her my rank and I wanted to laugh as her eyes widened. The other two did the same and I did not care. I will not have her disrespect me and serving on this tour. We were going into a hot mess with no real time for stupid errors and reckless challenges. I stared into her eyes and her bright green eyes faced me. She looked forward and said nothing after that.
“And who are the privates next to you?”
“Private Melisandre Hussan.” The Middle Eastern private next to her spoke up. Her accent thick. She was very pretty with her olive oil skin and raven hair. She looked very bookish and shy. The private next to her looked the same way. They looked like two wolf pups with their tails in between their legs.
“Private Emersyn Smith.” She looked like a hot mixture of anxiety and excitement. Like a dynomite stick praying to get lit. I was glad she was playing with vaccines and not canons. Unsteady hands and nervous energy make me worried. Nothing is scarier than an unpredictable private. Maybe I was scaring her, but Africa and the Middle East was going do much more than just talk loudly.
The two men in uniform seemed as attentive as any. Most of the time they stood like two poles. From what I could tell from their files and their positions, they seemed just happy to get off base. The ginger and black hair brothers in arms looked as helpful as a sack of potatoes to a Russian vodka maker. James Adichie was from Massachusetts and he, like everyone in the unit it seemed, had just finished basic training. He was recently married but he grinned from ear to ear. He was all energy and ready for war. Jeremy Conway had a thick sleek Tennessee accent that was smother than whiskey. They were lieutenants so there was some promise that there would be some rank. They knew better than to talk down to a Captain. Between the two of them, I could not tell who was more of a loaded canon. This was going to be a hot and unpredictable tour.
This was starting so well. I dismissed them and told them to say their fair wells to their family and friends. I told the 68Ws to review their packets. I knew they had all been a lot and I knew we were going to be a hot mess. They did not bring me back here to get an easy assignment. I should have known that the Major would give me a loaded crew. There were no next of kin or family on record for any of them. We were a group with no family and by theory we would become one for each other or we go about our day to day. The girls all knew each other and that was not a problem, but Valencia was the one in charge of the group.
I walked down the halls. My mind filling with thoughts of what these girls must have gone threw to become this hard. No one to come back to or to be here when you come back is hard for everyone, especially after a tour that is likely to be hell. I looked down at the floor and rubbed my head trying to figure out how my feet were still moving even though I did not want them to. A calm and friendly voice moved me from my thoughts.
“Captain, I hate to disturb you, but can I ask you something?”
“What’s up Private Hassan?”
“It is a private matter. Do you mind if we could talk in my room?”
I walked into the room and between Hassan and Smith bunks looked like a library. There were so many books and papers. Two laptops laid haphazardly on the bed. It looked like the mother of all bombs went off while a library and college dorm room.
“Privates you have 5 minutes to get this room in order. This room looks like hell.”
“Captain, that was what we were going to talk to you about. We need to get our stuff into storage. Private Smith and I were hoping that we could store our stuff with you.”
Smith spoke up. “If you met the storage guy, you would understand why we don’t trust him.”
“Ma’am please this is all we got, and it is a lot to us even though it doesn’t seem like much”
“First, I do not care if all this stuff is worth a fortune, clean it up. Second, I am sure we can arrange something. Last thing, do you know where the boys live at?”
“They live in the next hall over. Can we please store our stuff with yours? Like can we share a storage space?”
“My storage place is home. I share a home with another veteran. I think we have an extra room where I might be able to fit some of your stuff. You two are getting name updates Smith you are now Research and Hussan you are Catalogs.”
“Captain why did we get those names?”
“Because it looks like you ransacked the library of Alexandria and tried to hide it in the world’s small’s officers room.”
“How come I got to be Catalogs?”
“Because your side of the room looks like there was an attempt to keep organize. Smith over here looks like my room when I was finishing term papers. Jesus Christ answer my prayer. Does Jones need to store her stuff too?”
“Probably she is just next door.”
Smith hopped out of the room. She seemed to have found her spirit.
“Go away. I am doing something.”
“Jones, it’s me Smith. I got the Captain in my room and she wanted to know if you need to move your stuff into her house. She said it was okay.”
“Are you sure?”
“No, but I don’t want to deal with the creepy guy.”
Just then Smith’s phone went off and she giggled. She walked in to the hallway with a wide grin.
“She is talking to Nichole again. I know those two are going to get all kissy and teary. I hope they get married. It would be a good for her and for all of us.” Hassan informed me.
Jones walked in and froze when she saw me. She seemed upset and nervous. She quickly looked to the floor.
“I am sorry for earlier Captain. I have just had a lot on my mind and waiting around makes me testy. That is still no reason for my insubordination.”
“Look just keep your mouth in check and we will be fine. What’s going on?”
“I am just trying to get my affairs in order.”
“Private. Let us talk in your room.” I opened the door and looked back at the other two. “When I get back there should be no trash, books, or anything else on this floor. Research, for all the love in humanity, stop reading your notes and clean up. Maybe if the rooms get cleaned and we get this all store before this evening we might get to go into town and get ice cream. Hurry up.”
They turned to each other with thrilled and giddy smiles.
“Those boxes better be organized, labeled and papers better be filed properly. You are not putting a pig stay in the middle of my house.” I said getting ready to walk out of the room.
“You have a house? Can we do a sleep over?” Hussan thick accent was dripping with hopeful expectations.
“Let’s try ice cream first.”
I was floored when I walked into Private Jones’ room. It was not well lit like the other two. Her bed was nicely made, and books laid in stacks on her desks. Drawings of various scales and mediums laid next to the books on the desk along with the covering the room. She was very talented. Various drawings of people and ceremonies plagued the walls. Most of them we funerals. The figures were blurry, but the caskets were clear. The cold black in the drawings were dripping with pain. They lined the map on the wall which was covered in little black marks. There was still evidence of her charcoal hands touching the map after finishing a drawing.
There were maps of the United States and states with dates attached to them. Pins and photographs littered them. Red circles, caskets, funerals, photographs of a life that was buried by the uniform. I stared at the walls completely aghast. The photos covered the maps with circles around cities. She watched me as my eyes traced the walls. There were a couple together, both were dressed in blues in front of the church. They flashed smiles and two wedding bands.
She had a floor lamp that was near her bed. She turned it on to provide more light for me to view her room. There were so many drawings and each one was unlike the one next to it. Tape and charcoal spots where she had just put a new drawing up. She was a hardened individual. Just by the images she chose to draw and sketch.
“Those are my parents. It’s the only picture I have of them.” She stated promptly as my fingers found the copy and the sketch that coordinate.
“You look like them.” She had his cheek bones and her mother’s eyes which gleamed with adventure and compassion.
“Smith said you are willing to store our stuff.” She broke my attention.
“That she did. I am willing to store your stuff, but you all need to pack it up by tonight that way we can move it.”
“Why tonight, Captain?
“It’s already Wednesday and we leave Friday morning. I figured that since you all were moving your stuff into my place we might have a relaxing evening and just have some fun around town.” I know right before my first deployment I had wished I had indulged in the people that surrounded the base. My excitement for the mission blinded me to the reality of needing something worth fighting for. Even if I had just seen people off base, I would have had something to hold in my heart while over there.
“Did the Major say we could?” she asked quietly like a wolf with her tail between her legs. She had been that way when the Major had talked during the briefing.
“You all are with me now. I have command until I get orders from him saying otherwise. Is there something going on between you and the major?”
“Shut the door please.” She asked.
“Are you giving orders to a superior?” I teased but she took it the wrong way.
“No captain.” Her eyes filled with tears and fear of punishment. I walked and grabbed the door.
“As you Captain I am asking you to tell me about your relationship with the Major. Did he do something to you?”
“No. The Major hasn’t done anything to me or the other privates.”
“You all seemed pretty tense earlier.”
“I had just heard the missions opts before and . . .” she paused and looked around. “Never mind.”
“Tell me.” I stated trying not to sound to forceful, but I wanted to know what her problem was.
“Would you believe me if I told you what I was thinking?” she looked up into my eyes with nothing but icy tension.
“As long as it sounded crazy enough to be possible. You have my undivided attention private”
“I think that they only put you in charge of us because none of us have families. We are all meant to die together. You know better than anyone Captain that orphans make the best body count. There is no one to send the body back to and no one is looking for money.”
“You have every right to think that. Besides you and the other two having high marks from basic and advance training, yeah orphans make good soldiers. The government is not cheap but if they can save a penny or two I would not blame them. Ever tour I went on, I always came back. Not every orphan becomes a pile of ash in a box, but you need to trust you comrades. They are the ones at your Six.”
“Have you only served with other orphans on your other tours?”
“No, I had plenty of people with marriages and families. I fine that that can just be as distracting as they are helpful. It just depends on the people that you surround yourself with. I got you six and I hope you got mine.”
She looked around the room and smiled in agreement. “I got you Captain. Are you sure you can hold on to all our stuff?”
“Let me call Sasha but I am pretty sure we can house it while we are away. My suggestion is to mark it after you pack this all up. Try using some cardboard and tape to create a giant portfolio.”
She smiled and for the first time all day, I felt like I accomplished something. I grabbed my phone and texted Sasha saying I was bring company and that we were going to use my room to store their stuff. Maybe tour would not be too bad. Jones, Smith and Hassan seemed to have warmed up to me. I walked out and into another building to the room that the men shared, and they seemed to have been ghosting in their rooms. There was nothing in there that had not been issued to them.
Of all the supplies, I needed on this tour, two lose canons and a flock of greenies was not on the list.
I walked out of the men’s commons and towards the hanger. There were clouds gathering around the base. It looked like there were going be more than just earthly tears falling tonight. The cold concrete looked like it could use a washing and the grass was dying from the premature first frost. It was going to be a long time before I would return to the states. The grass disappointed me. I was hopeful for weeds and fall blooms, even though it was late in the season. Instead, I had brown grass and dead plants. Even the weeds that grew despite the concrete that surrounded them, had given up their spirits. There was nothing positive about this hopeless land of collapse spirits but something about it felt like home.
I crossed the ground and made it safely to the hanger. There was my beautiful blocks of vaccines, bandages, and medical supplies. The pallets covered in plastic wrap, but the labels were still legible. I could see the different containers of medication. I could not help but think of all the good I was going to do once I got over to the desert. My mind knew better than to let me think that I was superman. I was nobody’s hero, but everyone is going to need me with the medical supplies. Sometimes it is not the bullet that hurts but the reality will give you a nasty stink.
I gently patted my supplies and leaned against it. At least I knew this was properly pack, ready to go and exactly what I needed and wanted. Nothing than what was needed. I made a small promise to the supplies to kill anyone who messed with it. The buzz of my phone nearly made me punch the supplies. I laughed to myself when I remembered it was just an alarm I had set for the girls. Once I turned it off I looked back to the supplies that looked as eager to serve as I was. Only a few more days until this world would be turned on its head. The mission always looks a little different when we were not state side.
It started to rain, and it came down just like I thought it would. It felt cool on my neck as I walked to go find my privates and my car. I walked into the barracks and smiled to find gear and boxes ready to go. They had already packed themselves. I checked my phone again when it buzzes. It was a message from Sasha. I opened it and prayed that it was the message I was hoping for.
I walked into Smith and Hassan’s room and was happy to see the floor.
“I am pulling the car around. Be ready to load and move out.”
“Yes Captain!” the three retorted. I could not help but smile as their giggles rang through the hall.
It was a delight to hear them happy and lighthearted. They would need these fun and relaxing memories to get them through our tour. It was going to be hot and hard. There was going to be many struggles and when heat does not kill you the doubt will. I enjoyed walking slowly around base. The rain felt good and cool on my neck and hands. There was something about rain that just always made me feel better. I looked up into the sky knowing that this will be the last time that I would feel rain. The desert is notorious for a lack of rain and fresh water. Checklists and packing lists made a place in my mind. I needed to pack. There was no denying that this was going to be a lot harder than my last tour.
I opened the car door. Sitting in the front seat I rolled my car up to the parking space close to the barracks. The girls were already waiting for me and my truck. Boxes and bags of stuff made their way into the covered bed of my truck. I never thought the barrack rooms could hold so much stuff. Once everything was loaded and secure we made our way off base and by the looks of their faces it had been a long time since they had left base.
They looked around the car and through the car windows. I could see through the rearview mirror how happy they were. Even through the winding, bumping road the privates that filled my car were finally out in the public. We drove and blasted the radio so that music filled our small journey. Jones even cracked a smile and sang with us. We may be the next crew to deploy but we knew we were popstars.
We rolled into the sleepy but busy town that was waiting for us. The bright neon lights of the restaurants filled the car and mixed with the setting suns dying hues. Smith was the first to get out of the car when we made it to the Dairy Queen. She adjusted herself and we all smiled.
“Private, you good?” I teased. “You look like a hot box ready to burst.”
“I’m good Captain.”
Hassan interjected. “She is getting to kiss the girl she loves.”
Smith gave a look that could kill. Her hands were bright pink and sweaty. I watched her slow down as we approached the door. I held it open and smiled as her boots hit the tile. We all smiled as Smith blushed. Behind the counter a young girl was taking orders. Her hair was a mixture of black, white and blonde. Her streaks laid haphazardly through her hair. She was pretty and young, and Smith looked like a hot mess. Smith chewed her lip trying to work up a small bit of courage. Jones, Hassan, and I ordered a Blizzard for each one of us. Smith looked bewildered and unsure, this is when our entire day flipped. I have never seen these young privates in PT, but I am sure that Smith had no problem passing. Not only did she order her Blizzard, but she jumped on the counter and, in being nervous and eager, kissed the girl beyond the counter. It was a long, deep kiss that conveyed all the message that Smith needed to say. When she pulled away they both looked at each other blushing and excited.
“I’m sorry, Nichole. I just wanted to say that you are beautiful, and I really love you and that I am so sorry that I never came to see you besides tonight. I wished I had worked up the courage to see you before now. I leave on Friday and I know I will not be able to talk or see you and that is why I just wanted to see if this could work. Do you like me?”
Nichole looked at the counter and her nervously. “Yes.”
Smith looked like she was going to collapse. She was so excited and eager for mischief. She stayed up there and flirted with Nichole as we ate our ice cream. I was happy that the shop was not very busy. This small sleepily town was full of secrets but that was not a problem this evening. The only issue town was love quickly fading to the shadow of a nearing deployment. Fear gets the best of all and time waits for no one.
We sat waiting for Smith to rejoin our company but that the ice cream ran out before their conversation did. Jones and Hassan bombed me with questions about the house and what tours were like. I laughed and answered them as best as possible. I glance down at my phone as it vibrated. Sasha sent me a list for tonight. She was the queen of parties along with other things.
“Hey Smith, we are headed to the store next door. Text me when you walk in and I will meet up with you.”
She smiled and then continued her conversation with Nichole. I grabbed Jones and Hassan and we walked to the store. God knows those two would try to jump into their conversation. They had already lost so much time to fear and uncertainty. Relationships need time and space to grow. It was going to fall and shatter in the wake and shadow of a rapidly approaching deployment.
Nothing is crazier than two fort based privates that have not seen the store or a wide variety of food in a long period time. They obviously had been eating at the Commissary since they were stationed on base. Their eyes were wide and huge as light and colored packages filled their visual scope. Jones and Hassan looked at me with wide grins. The bright packages and shiny plastic stole their attention.
“We should totally race like some of the cooking shows we watch.” Jones giggled.