Nadine knew better than to answer the phone while at the pool—her “happy place,” according to the latest in a string of therapists.
This one, she was assured by her V.A. caseworker, was a PTSD specialist, and this one, she was also assured, would be able to “set her mind straight.” She had lost hope when the fucker set the tone of their first session with “finding a happy place” that Nadine could “go to” whenever her mind began to “shut down.” No, she had thought and was thinking again, I need a massive quantity of psychotropic medications to counter my brain’s terror of adrenaline. Nevertheless, the pool at Sun Valley Apartments had become Nadine’s “happy place” and it was there, by the pool on this sunny, hot Florida morning, that she looked down and saw her doctor’s office number flashing back.
“Hello?” she answered halfheartedly. That they were calling before noon meant they had bad news about the spinal tap in search of the cause of Nadine’s headaches. Patients who got good reports received phone calls in the afternoons. Patients who were to be the recipients of bad news got their results in the morning, in case the doctors wanted to bring them in that afternoon.
“Nadine Smith?” the chipper nurse asked. Nadine told her it was she. “Could I confirm your birthday as 2-16-79?” Yes, Nadine said. “And the last four of your social?” the young woman asked. Nadine gave it to her.
“Look, hon, I ain’t got all day. I know it’s bad news and—”
“Yes,” the nurse interrupted with a stammer. “We…well, we had a mix-up at the lab, but got it sorted.”
“So you’re not calling me to tell me I have brain cancer?”
The nurse laughed. “Oh heavens no! Your tests came back clear. However, the doctor wants you to come in this afternoon to talk, if you would, to a young man we just got home from Afghanistan. Doc Murphy says you understand PTSD better than anyone in the clinic.”
Nadine pinched the bridge of her nose. Since coming home, she had become the resident expert on all things military for her friends and family. Obama on the television talking up an operation or something blew up, there was Nadine and a three-hour phone conversation with her aunt in Milwaukee. “A drone—what’s that again? Well who’s flying the thing? It’s sounding more and more like Terminator every day.” The first time one of the V.A. docs had sent a recently returned soldier her way, she thought they were insane. She wasn’t even fixed herself. How was she supposed to fix someone else? But she had agreed to that meeting, just like she would this one.
“What time?” she asked. If left to the V.A.’s devices, the poor kid would be huddling under his bed by the end of the first night. By the second, she knew from experience, the bed would be upturned and there may be an unpleasant few days in store at the looney house. But that wasn’t going to be today—not on her watch.
“Three-thirty and I’ll text you to remind you,” the nurse said. Nadine gave one last glance around the pool. It was pressing two now and she had to get ready.
Four hours later, Nadine was sitting in a hard plastic chair in what the hospital called a “social room.” She hated the “social room” because the cold sterility, the white tile and white walls and white ceiling hummed under the white fluorescent lights. She hated the “social room” because it fostered only those emotions that ran contrary to social interaction. Completely loving, supportive spouses became snippy and argumentative in the “social room.” As soon as Pfc. Green arrived, she would hightail it to the little garden where the doctors all went to sneak smokes.
“Sergeant Smith?” a young man asked. He was small, too small for the BDUs he was wearing. His shaved head, still tan from the desert sun, betrayed just a shadow of darkness, brown or even black. His eyes were blue, the kind of blue that Nadine might have described as piercing if they weren’t so lifeless.
“I’m Nadine. You must be Henry Green?”
He nodded. She watched his face as he scanned the room and debated entering. Henry Green was young, probably about the age of her own son, had she ever taken the time to have a family instead of spending twenty years in the Army. His dark eyes, though, betrayed an age that didn’t come with years. He still had not released the doorknob, a symptom Nadine understood all too well. Doors can separate you from the enemy. Or worse—from escape. She knew just how to fix that. “Want to take a walk?”
They took the stairs down from the third floor “social room” to the first floor, where the stairwell emptied into the courtyard and garden. She was glad to see none of the doctors were around and that the courtyard had just enough sunlight to be pleasant, but not so much as to be a reminder of the desert.
“So, want me to give you the run down?” she said.
“All the bullshit you’re about to get put through,” she said. He half smiled. “Good. You are alive in there. Don’t ever forget that.”
For the next few minutes, Nadine talked him through the various treatment regimens the V.A. docs would try. None of which, she assured him, would do a goddamned thing but make him sleep too much, drink too much, or eat too much. So, skip it all and just drink too much, eat too much and then sleep it off. “Same result without the drugs,” she said.
She then told him what to expect after the treatments didn’t work—the reporting to this specialist or that. “It’s all pointless, but still, do it. Otherwise, they’ll just med-dis you out and yank your benefits. Meanwhile, remember: over eat, over drink. Are you married?”
He shook his head.
“Boyfriend?” she asked. He rolled his eyes. “So you’re single. Good. Do you have things you like in your apartment? Like gifts from your long-dead great grandfather or your Dad’s railroad watch?”
He thought for a minute. “Yeah, a few things. Like my brother’s guitar. He was KIA in Fallujah.”
“Bring it to me next time we meet. Chances are at some point, you’re going to smash everything you own into toothpicks and sand. I’ll keep it safe,” she said. “You can have it back after you’re done. And that’s the good news. You will get done.”
“How long, Sarge?” he asked. She could tell by the tremor in his voice that it was the most important question he had ever asked—and possibly the only one she didn’t have an answer for.
“As long as it takes. And call me Nadine, Henry,” she said. “So, before I ask you what happened to you, I’ll share with you my story. Then we’ll compare notes. Sound fun?”
He shrugged one shoulder.
Encouraged enough, she launched in. Nadine told him about going to college for dental hygiene, about graduating and deciding to pursue a dental degree. She still remembered the sound of her CO’s voice when he called to tell her their unit had been activated and was on standby to deploy to Baghdad. “The Green Zone, though,” he had told her. “Setting up a clinic. You’ll enjoy it.” Which she had, for the first three months. Then the fighting started. The “Green Zone” got a bit smaller every day, until their clinic was in the middle of a street fight between two groups she still didn’t understand. It wasn’t an ethnic or religious fight, she assured him. It was a gang turf war. She stopped for a minute when she got to the part about the day the clinic was attacked. Apparently the dentist in charge had fixed the teeth of one of one of the group’s leaders. The other group had seen this as a sign of loyalty. So, after an hour of beatings, torture and rapes, the other group executed everybody. Except Nadine. She had been in the supply room at the time the attack started and, God only knows why, the men had never thought to check the door.
When she got to the end of the story, she looked over to Green. He was still starring off, his eyes fixed on the horizon. She nudged him with her elbow.
He shook his head.
“Maybe later. I’m kind of tired right now,” he said.
She understood. She gave him her cell phone number, her home number, and her email address. “Add me on Facebook, too, if you like. But be warned. I post a lot of cuteness. Cats and puppies, and I have a serious thing for pandas.”
Pfc. Green said he would do so. He gave her his cell number, too, but only after she insisted. He thanked her for the contact information, “I don’t imagine I’ll call. I hate the phone.”
“Still, I wanna know it’s you and not the bill collectors,” she said.
They parted ways in the hospital lobby and, as she was driving home, Nadine was hopeful.
That night, just before Kimmell, Nadine dozed off in her easy chair. Her mind strayed too quickly into the dream realm and, somewhere between consciousness and sleep, Nadine slipped back into Baghdad, in the clinic. She did not panic, though, and did not try to rouse herself from slipping farther into this sleep-memory. By the time she realized it was that morning, the morning, it was too late and she was soundly in the grip of unconsciousness. Somewhere in the distance, mortar shells were exploding. The shouting was much closer, too close, as she huddled against the door of the closet. The shouts were Captain Taylor, she knew, because she recognized the rasp in her voice and the slow, Southern drawl as she begged them to stop. Nadine began to brace herself for what she knew was coming next, for the pop that would end it all. Small caliber, clean, staccato. The pop came, but the silence she expected didn’t. Somewhere in the closet, a phone was ringing. This wasn’t part of it, she knew. Something was wrong.
Nadine opened her eyes. She looked down at the cell phone in her lap, the caller ID flashing “Henry.”
She answered it immediately. “Henry?”
The line was silent, but she could hear background noise. “Henry,” she said. Still no response. By now, she had her keys in her hand and was heading for the door, calculating as she went how long it would take her to get to the V.A.
“Pfc. Green!” she mustered in her most authoritative voice.
“Ma’am!” he snapped back.
“Status report?” she demanded.
“On the roof, Sarge! Pinned down against the railing.”
On the roof? Of the hospital? How did he get on the roof? Why?
“Pfc. Green, I’m on my way. I’ll be there in fifteen,” she said. She fired up the Dodge Charger, revved the engine twice. “Strike that. Ten.”
“Nadine,” Henry said. His voice had changed. “I ain’t doing so well.”
She was out of the parking lot and into traffic. She blew through the first red light as she answered. “I know, son. But I’m on my way.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
“Then don’t do anything. That’s an order, private.”
“I just feel—”
“Stop!” she interrupted “Don’t finish that sentence. You are not what you were about to say—even though you feel that way. I’m here. I’m with you on the phone and in about seven minutes, I’m going to be up there with you. Got it?”
“Yes’am, Sarge. I got it.” He went silent again, but she could still hear him breathing. “Nadine?”
“I think I know what’s wrong.”
“What’s that, son?”
“I’m glad it was them and not me and that makes me feel like shit.”
Nadine sighed. She knew just how he felt.
“Just sit tight. I’ll be there in five. Got it?”
“Pfc. Green! I asked you a question and gave you an order, son!”
“Yes Sarge,” he said, his voice quiet.
Nadine knew he would be there when she got there. But she also knew she had better hurry.
Michael DeVault is a novelist and essayist living and working in central Tennessee. His work appears frequently in regional and national publications, and his novels Anything But Ordinary and The Patriot Joe Morton were finalists for the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Medal in Novel. When he is not writing, Michael teaches at Volunteer State Community College and Tennessee State University. He is currently working on his next novel.