I couldn’t step back, couldn’t move, it was all I could do to make myself the biggest target possible, covering Cassie as much as I could, hoping she would make the right choice and run. High in the air it started its fall. My eyes locked onto its white, unblinking circles, barely hearing the racket of gunfire at my back, watching the monster jerk with a spasmodic movement and feeling the full force of its cold weight as I crumpled to the tarmac.
Surprise started my eyes wide, rushing through me as Cassie’s head bared down close to mine, her face backdropped to the clouding sky and a brief glimpse of McCole’s to the side.
“Can you get up? We need to go,” her voice said with an echo I was sure only I heard. Standing was easier than I’d expect, the heavy weight gone from my chest, left only was the thick crimson stain running down my face and across my front. I spat to the road, a great wad of clots landed, but I knew it wasn’t my own and tried my best to keep my empty stomach from overflowing.
Stepping over the body of the woman who once was, I didn’t need Cassie’s help to keep myself steady, but took the offer so she’d be close. McCole ran by our side, his rifle slung over his shoulder beside another heavy packed rucksack. His face was thick with the same frown, in his left hand he held his pistol, his right tucked under his left armpit, a growing ring of darkness radiating out and across his camouflaged jacket. Urged on by them both and the not so distant screams reverberating in the air, I cleared my mind of all but keeping one foot in front of the other.
McCole went first, his pistol pointed out and we scraped through a gap in the hedge line, grateful for the wide open field the other side. We ran, then jogged, soon slowing to a walk as the adrenaline cleared and the weight of the packs and our empty stomachs returned. With a quick change of direction towards a small copse of trees, we settled at the base of wide oak, slumping to the ground as the memories of the last few moments bore down.
The distant screams hadn’t repeated since we’d had grass under our feet and I lifted my head as McCole gave a cough, turning to Cassie as we both remembered his hand.
“Show me,” Cassie said as we pried off our rucksacks. McCole squirmed on his butt and he gingerly pulled his hand from under his armpit, but as blood cascaded, he pushed it back under, biting his teeth together hard. He’d lost his pinky finger.
“QuikClot gauze in the med kit,” he said, his mouth barely moving. The words of the doctor came back. If we could stop the bleeding quick, he’d have a chance. Both Cassie and I turned, upending the bags, mirroring our motions as we rifled through the Aladdin’s cave, pushing aside heavy camo bags, the bottles of water, warm clothes and ration packs. We found the dark green first aid kits at the same time, unzipping the waterproof bags in a chorus, pulling the long strips of plastic wrapped material with QuikClot Combat Gauze written in bold letters. Cassie was first to get hers open and I dropped mine as McCole shouted.
“Just one.” I turned and took a hold of his pale wrist, blood running down the stump of his little finger. Cassie was amazing. She didn’t pause, didn’t squirm or turn her nose up at her task. Instead she scanned the instructions, pushing the gauze down hard, wrapping as his hand went limp, his eyes closing as he passed out. Blood reddened the gauze as she wrapped, but slowed as each layer added. Sticking the end down she stood, raising the drooping arm as high as she could. I uncurled the fingers of his left hand from the pistol and rested it on the floor beside him as I drew a deep breath, trying to ignore the coppery taste in my mouth. My head snapped around in all directions, breath slowing with every turn when I saw we were still alone.
I repacked Cassie’s bags, knowing we would have to move at any moment, would have to decide about McCole if any of the scenarios running through my head happened. Still turning, watching the hedge-lines, pausing each moment I caught the wind in a tree, I cleaned my face with an antiseptic cloth, disgusted by the red colour returned with each wipe. Using as little water as I could, I rinsed out my mouth and took a great gulp, forcing myself to stop before it was all gone. Cassie took the water as I offered and we shared half a Mars Bar which tasted like it was made of pure energy. The glow of sugar rushing through my body came quick and I took my turn to hold McCole’s hand high.
“What now?” Cassie said as she scanned the horizon, now she was turning, her face full of dread. We both knew these quiet moments were so far apart, but when they happened they always meant something worse would come when we least expected it.
“Nothing’s changed,” McCole said, sucking air through his teeth as he pulled his hand from mine. “We get the boy back to the FOB. The hospital,” he corrected himself, remembering his audience. I nodded turning to Cassie, shouldering the pack as she did the same.
“But how?” Cassie replied before I had a chance.
“We get the Land Rover back,” he replied, picking up the rifle as he struggled to his feet. I followed his pointed look towards the road and a column of white smoke rising, watching until a great explosion tore outward through the hedge, bucking us back as a great plume of black smoke billowed to the air.
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Reading out of sequence? Why? Here’s Chapter One