Near Shreveport, Louisiana • Wednesday, June 23, 2010 • 7:50 a.m./0750 hours
Tara and I had been silent as we drove the first twenty minutes from Bon Temps to Shreveport. It was early, not yet 8:00 a.m., and I knew that she was as tired as I was. We’d both pretty much put our lives on hold since the previous Friday night.
The days since then had been horrible—unthinkable.
From what the police said, the SUV that Alcide was driving was first hit from behind, but at an angle—not far away from where we were driving on the Interstate that very second. The impact of the rear collision, propelled the SUV out of its lane, where a stone divider was present. The SUV had hit the divider and then somehow spun around before careening back into the other lanes of traffic.
There had been an eighteen-wheeler waiting.
The tire marks had told the Louisiana Highway Patrol that Alcide had made a valiant effort trying to keep the SUV under control as well as to avoid the Semi, but even a professional stunt driver wouldn’t have survived the situation. Ultimately, the SUV had taken a full-frontal impact from the Semi-truck. Though the airbags had deployed in the SUV, the vehicle’s front end was crushed before it flipped onto its side and then was partially sandwiched between the Semi and—ironically enough—a tow truck that had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The SUV became a pretzel of twisted metal.
In a split second, Alcide and his father, Jackson, who’d been in the front seat, were killed, both of them basically crushed as the SUV was forced somewhat under the front of the Semi. Sookie and Adele were in the middle seat. Adele died before the jaws of life could open the shell of the vehicle to pull her out—the victim of massive internal injuries that would have killed her anyway. According to the officer I’d talked to, she’d been—thankfully—unconscious the whole time.
Sookie’s right leg had broken badly. And her back, too, was fractured though the doctors didn’t think she was paralyzed. She’d also had a severe head injury and some internal injuries. She’d already undergone three surgeries and was still in a coma. The doctors now gave her about a 50-50 chance of pulling through.
The boys, Jase and Hunter, had been in the back seat, likely talking about their upcoming camping adventure at Cross Lake with the Herveaux men. They were planning to start that adventure the next day. When the accident happened, the family had been on the way to Shreveport to enjoy dinner and a movie.
Hunter was the least injured in the car, having not been on the side of the initial hit and being in the back of the car so that he avoided the direct frontal hit. Still—he had gotten a concussion, whiplash, and a badly broken arm.
Jase had been roughed up much worse. His severe concussion had precipitated the doctors having to relieve pressure on his brain through surgery. He’d also suffered a broken left femur, four broken ribs, a collapsed lung, and what the doctors called a minor bruise to the heart. Arguably, his worst injury had been to his right leg, which had been basically twisted around metal as the SUV had turned onto its side and skidded on the pavement. The doctors hadn’t been able to save all of that leg, needing to amputate it from right below the knee. But against all odds, Jase was stable, even waking up the previous day—scared, confused, and extremely groggy.
I sighed. The driver who’d caused the initial accident had been drunk. He’d stumbled out of his truck without a fucking scratch, though he’d been marched away in handcuffs, having killed three people! I, for one, hoped that the devil had his way with the man one day! The Semi driver who hit Alcide’s SUV head-on had been pulling a heavy load that had been difficult to maneuver. In trying to avoid the SUV, his truck had jack-knifed. He’d suffered a minor concussion and some serious lacerations as he’d tried to personally get into the SUV to help the family he’d inadvertently hit.
The tow-truck driver ended up with a bad bang to the head and some broken ribs, but he’d be okay.
I had met the Semi trunk driver before he’d been released from the hospital the day before; I’d been able to tell that his unfounded guilt and the horror of the scene would eat at him for a while—maybe for the rest of his life.
In rushing to the hospital the night of the accident—after being the first person in Sookie’s phone’s contact list who’d answered when the police were trying to locate next of kin—I had passed the mangled remains of the SUV at the side of the road. Had the vehicle been a sedan like the one I had been driving—or the one I was riding in at the current moment—no one in the car would have survived. That thought caused me to shiver.
“You okay?” Tara asked.
I nodded, not being able to talk at that moment without crying.
I had called Tara as soon as I’d arrived at the hospital and learned how bad everything was. My husband, Tray Dawson (I’d chosen not to take his last name since it had been such a pain to change my name from Carmichael to Broadway several years before), wasn’t in the state at the time. Tray was in the Air Force Reserves and had been in Oklahoma City for some training. I’d called Tara because I couldn’t wait at the hospital alone without going crazy. And, of course, I’d told the police to call Hadley, too. But she and Remy were—rightly—focused on Hunter once they arrived at the hospital.
I needed help dealing with what was going on with Sookie and Jase, who were both in the surgical part of the intensive care wing, while Hunter was in a regular room. Plus, I needed someone to help hold me up and to cry with over Alcide and Jackson.
And Sookie and Jase.
Feeling my throat burning, I stifled my tears as I thought about the woman who’d practically been my grandmother, too.
Between Tara and me, there had already been a lot of tears.
Of course, right after I’d called her the night of the accident, Tara had immediately come to the hospital with her husband JB—not that I was surprised. For as long as I could remember, Sookie, Tara, and I had been close friends. Gran had called us the Three Musketeers.
“Actually, no. I’m not okay,” I chuckled ruefully as soon as I found the ability to speak.
“Me neither,” Tara said, shaking her head and then taking my hand for a moment before putting hers firmly back onto the steering wheel.
We’d all been a little afraid of driving—and a lot more careful—since the accident.
Tara and I had been coming to Shreveport General Hospital to sit with Jase and Sookie as much as possible since the accident—which pretty much translated into the beginning of visiting hours until we got kicked out at night. Things were more complicated for Tara since she was six months pregnant and had a store—Tara’s Togs—to run. I had more free time—since I was a freelance editor—but I couldn’t be in two rooms at once, and they couldn’t put Jase and Sookie into the same room yet. Simply put, Sookie was in too bad of shape, and her life still hung in the balance.
I closed my eyes, trying to shut out the memories of Sookie’s heart monitor flatlining two days earlier when I’d been sitting with her. Thankfully, the skilled doctors and nurses had brought her back with only a single burst of energy to her heart. But I was still traumatized, though certainly not as much as Sookie’s broken and battered body had been.
Tara and I had been taking turns, one of us sitting with Jase and the other sitting with Sookie—at least when we could. There were times when one or the other was in surgery and also times when Sookie’s condition got a bit worse and no visitors were allowed.
Hadley, Sookie’s cousin, had been allowed to stay overnight at the hospital, but she’d only felt comfortable leaving her son for short periods of time—just long enough to get updates on her other two surviving family members. The only good news was that Hunter was due to be released soon, but the kid had a long road of healing and rehabilitation ahead with his arm.
Of course, Tara and I had called William and Sophie-Anne Compton—to let them know about the accident. But they couldn’t come to Louisiana for the foreseeable future, not with Sophie-Anne still in the hospital following her recent stroke.
Alcide’s sister, Janice, was in pieces, trying to deal with funeral arrangements for her brother and her father—even as she tried to postpone those events just in case Sookie woke up.
So—yeah—it fell to Tara and me to be with Sookie and Jase, not that we felt the role was a burden. It was just one we wished wasn’t necessary.
We’d also been working with Mike Spencer, who ran the funeral home in Bon Temps, to make plans for Adele’s funeral. Thankfully, Adele had already made most of her own funeral arrangements with Mike, and her other wishes were in documents that Sid-Matt Lancaster, her lawyer, had readily available. I was grateful that there wasn’t much to do on that end, and—similar to Janice regarding Alcide and Jackson—I prayed that we wouldn’t have to bury Gran before Sookie woke up.
Or worse—bury Sookie next to Gran.
Tara and I both remained silent for the rest of the drive and then made our way to the ICU after purchasing some coffee for me and herbal tea for Tara. As soon as we got up to the desk, one of the nurses, Indira, who—of course—recognized us, told us that Sookie had been rushed into surgery about a half an hour before.
Having been bruised in the accident, her spleen had now ruptured and needed to be taken out!
Our hearts heavy, Tara and I made our way to Jase’s room, holding each other’s hand tightly. I know I was praying for my friend, and I figured Tara was too.
“Does he know about his mom yet?” I whispered to a nurse who was just getting ready to leave Jase’s room. I think her name was Holly.
“No,” she shook her head. “He’s so groggy right now from all the medicine he’s getting that he still doesn’t know any of what’s going on. But he’s a fighter,” she added, looking over her shoulder. “His vitals have been strong all night, and the swelling in his head is all but gone. But the doctors aren’t gonna start weaning him off of the stronger pain meds yet because he’s still got a couple of surgeries he needs to get through. Until then, it’s probably best that he doesn’t know his mom’s in such a bad way,” she said, her voice even lower. “Or that his daddy and grandparents are gone.”
I looked over to see Tara nodding in agreement, even as I felt myself doing the same.
Jase was better off if he could just sleep through the worst of his mother’s fight; hopefully, when he was ready to wake up more fully, he’d be greeted by good news about at least one parent.
“When he has been awake a little, he’s been asking for his mommy and his Uncle Eric,” the nurse shared, “just like yesterday.”
I nodded. “I swear it took an act of Congress to get a message to Captain Northman,” I muttered. “Or at least an act by a Senator.”
The nurse looked at me, a little confused.
“Uncle Eric is Captain Eric Northman,” I shared. Of course, I’d known about Bill’s best friend from the Marines. Sookie had spoken of him occasionally, usually in the context of his interactions with Jase and how awesome he was for the little boy. Jase talked about him quite a bit, but Eric Northman’s number hadn’t been in Sookie’s phone, and calling the Marine Corp’s general phone number had gotten me nowhere fast.
Ultimately, I’d called William Compton to see if he could help, and I’d awoken to a text message that relayed that Eric would be instructed to call me as soon as he returned from his current mission—though the exact time of that return was uncertain.
“Eric’s in the Marines,” Tara furthered my explanation to the nurse. “I think he’s in Iraq.”
I shook my head. “No. According to Jase, he moved on to Afghanistan about a year ago.”
“Oh,” the nurse sighed. “Too bad he’s not around—what with little Jase asking for him and all.”
“They Skype a lot,” I relayed. “Um—would I be able to set that up in the hospital once Jase is less groggy? I know it would probably help him to talk to Captain Northman—especially since he’s lost a second dad now,” I said, before breaking down in tears.
“Second?” the nurse asked.
Tara nodded sadly as she dug through her purse and handed me a tissue. “Yeah. Jase’s dad was Sookie’s first husband, Bill; he was also a Marine. He was killed in action about five years ago now.”
“God! That’s horrible!” the nurse exclaimed, looking back at her patient. “That poor little boy.”
“Yeah,” I sighed before progressing into the room with Tara. There wasn’t much more that we could do but sit with Jase—just in case he woke up enough to be aware of what was going on.
I found myself praying again that Sookie would be okay and that Jase wouldn’t lose three parents within five years.
Tara and I had been in Jase’s room for about ten minutes when my mobile phone vibrated in my pocket. Seeing a number that looked like it could be foreign, I quickly left the room so that I could answer the call.
I’d been bone tired when I’d returned from my mission. However, my call to Amelia Broadway had woken me up to the point that I wondered if I could ever sleep again.
Amelia had cried through half of the call before handing the phone to someone named Tara du Rone, who’d also broken down crying. But between the two of them, I’d learned what was happening—and the gravity of it. And I knew what I needed to do.
I was lucky in that I was based in the same location as my C.O., Colonel Russell Edgington. Otherwise, I would have had to call him for permission to take emergency leave, and I wasn’t sure I’d get my way via a phone call. But I knew that—in person—I could be convincing.
Permission wasn’t a done deal, however. In truth, I was valuable to the Corps right where I was. My experience and my ability to get to know the language and customs of a new place—to adapt, but remain distant from, any world I found myself in—was something my C.O.s often wrote about in their reports about my job performance. My previous C.O., Colonel de Castro, had argued for me to stay in Iraq since he found me valuable to his operations. But troop demands in Afghanistan had overruled de Castro’s desires.
It had been nice to be viewed as significant in the war effort—to feel needed. But—right now—I needed for Colonel Edgington to see me as easily replaceable.
I didn’t pause as I knocked on Colonel Edgington’s door. Given the time of day—just past 1900 hours—he normally wouldn’t have been asleep. But he’d been awake for at least the last 24 hours, just like I had been.
I heard him curse and grumble—and then curse some more—as I knocked again.
“Barbarians better be storming the fucking gates at this very fucking moment—I kid you not!” he yelled as he opened the door. Despite his bleary eyes, he “checked me out” as he sometimes did in his less guarded moments. Unlike most people, I intuited that Colonel Edgington was gay, but I didn’t give a fuck; he was an excellent leader of men, and his sexual preference had zero effect on that. Truth be told—I admired him for being so committed to the service that he was willing to hide who he was. There were rumors that Obama was looking into getting rid of what I felt to be the ridiculous “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. I hoped so; I didn’t know if Colonel Edgington and others would “come out,” but I felt that they should be able to if they wanted.
“Captain Northman!” he said with surprise, looking carefully at my expression. “You look like you’ve seen a fuckin’ ghost,” he added, his thick Mississippi accent coming through prominently.
“Not quite, sir,” I responded.
He frowned. “Give me five minutes to get some damned pants on, and then I’ll give you ten to tell me what has you knocking on my door when I saw you dead on your feet not thirty minutes ago. I’ll meet you in Meeting Room B.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, knowing that—if I didn’t give him those five minutes—there was no way I’d be getting ten. And that would mean that I wouldn’t get what I needed.
I was in Meeting Room B with fresh coffee for my C.O. by the time he arrived.
I stood at attention when he entered.
“Let’s sit,” he said, his eyes showing the kind of concern he only ever conveyed when a mission was in deep shit.
“Yes, sir,” I said, sitting as straight as possible in the uncomfortable wooden chair.
He took his coffee, even as he seemed to be noting that I’d brought none for myself.
“Well—what is it, Captain?” he asked.
“I need to leave—to go Stateside indefinitely and right away,” I said.
He blinked several times. And then he laughed loudly.
“Are you forgettin’ how the Corps works, Son? You can’t just leave whenever you want—not unless you’re dead, hurt, insane, or a traitor. And none of those would likely take you wherever you seem to want to go.”
“It’s a family emergency,” I said quickly.
“Your sister?” he asked, sitting forward.
“No,” I frowned. “Pamela is fine.”
“Forgive me, Son, but I’m familiar with your file. You have no other family.”
“It’s not,” I paused, “a traditional family.”
He frowned. “You don’t strike me as the kind to have an illegitimate kid runnin’ around, Captain.”
“I don’t,” I said. “About five years ago—during a tour in Iraq—my Lieutenant, Bill Compton, was killed. He was also my closest friend,” I paused, “the closest I’ve ever had in my life. When he died, he left a letter, asking me to watch over his son. I did. I’ve been speaking with Jase—Jason—for years. He calls me Uncle Eric, and—despite not being related by blood—he is my family, Sir,” I emphasized. “A few days ago, he, his mother, his grandmother, his stepfather, his step-grandfather, and his cousin were all in a car accident. His stepfather, step-grandfather, and grandmother all died at the scene, and his mother is currently hanging on by a thread. The cousin is banged up, and Jason is in the hospital with several broken bones, a bruised heart, a collapsed lung, and a bad head wound.” I paused and took a deep breath, composing myself. “In addition, his right leg needed to be amputated—just below the knee.”
The Colonel was shaking his head. “I’m real sorry to hear all this, Captain, but there’s nothing I can do for you.”
“There is!” I sat forward. “If there were such a thing as owed leave, I’d have a ton of it stored up. I’ve served eight tours—straight. And there are situations when Marines have been allowed to go home if their families have great need.”
“I’m not without sympathy, Captain, but there’s no denyin’ the truth: you aren’t this boy’s family,” he said quietly.
“Jason is as much of a son to me as I will probably ever have,” I said passionately, swiping at some tears I couldn’t control. “I promised his father that I’d take care of him and his mother—who might not even survive, based on the phone call I just had. As we speak, she’s in emergency surgery because of a ruptured spleen and internal bleeding. I can’t leave Jason alone! I won’t!” I said loudly. “I won’t let him think—not for a moment—that no one wants him! That no one is there for him!”
The Colonel shook his head and went to speak again, but I kept going, “And he’s asking for me!” I added fervently. “The kid’s just been through a horror as bad as any battle, his losses more profound than any Marine I’ve ever known. And he’s asking for me, Colonel! Me!” I reiterated.
Colonel Edgington sighed loudly. “You’re damned near irreplaceable to what we have going on here right now, Captain Northman. Do you know how valuable your language skills are? Do you know how coveted your ability to read people and to gauge a soldier’s talents are? Do you know how hard I had to fight to get you moved to my Battalion? Hell! I thought I’d have to duel de Castro for you!” He shook his head while I sat silent. “Most importantly, do you know how much respect your troops have for you and how much harder they work for you than for any other Captain I’ve ever worked with? Are you fucking aware of what it’s going to take to find a replacement for you? Of how many Marines that’s going to take?” he asked, seemingly getting angrier with each question.
“It’s good to be needed, sir, but . . . ,” I started.
The Colonel put up his hand. “Don’t talk!” he ordered, before taking a sip of his coffee. He studied me in silence for a good three minutes.
“Goddammit, Northman! I would need to break three regulations and lie my ass off in order to give you want you want tonight!” he finally said.
“I’m sorry, Sir,” I returned, not knowing what else to say.
“Don’t be sorry. Say thank you!”
“Thank you?” I asked hopefully.
He nodded. “I’m going to approve your extended leave and your ticket to the States because you’ve already given this Corps more than any man, woman, or child should be expected to give. As of right now, I’m putting you on medical leave.”
My eyebrow rose.
“I know you’ve been in counseling for years,” the Colonel shared. “Hell! I wish more men would see that damned shrink, Captain Avery, voluntarily—despite the fact that he can be an annoying little fuck!”
My eyebrow rose in question again. “He’s been nagging at me to reconcile with my kids. My divorce wasn’t exactly amicable,” Colonel Edgington shared.
I looked at him in surprise, not having known that he’d been married at any point.
“Anyway, Captain Avery owes me about twelve favors, and I’m going to collect one to get you out of here on the next flight Stateside. As of tonight, Captain Northman, you have severe PTSD!”
I shook my head. “I don’t want lying done on my behalf—not when a lot of Marines really should be sent home because of PTSD.”
The Colonel shook his head fondly. “Once you’re back Stateside and the world slows down for you, I’m ordering that you to continue counseling. What you’ve seen and done during the last decade will catch up with you, Captain. PTSD might not be the reason you’re leaving, but it’s probably a reason why you should have been ordered to take more time between your tours,” he added. “There’s a cargo plane for Okinawa at 0530. From there, I’ll arrange for you to return to wherever you need to be. I just need to know where to get you to, Son.”
“Shreveport,” I said.
He seemed to be remembering something.
“You put in to base out of Bailey at some point—right?” he asked.
“When Bill was alive,” I returned. “He was like a brother to me, so putting down roots in Louisiana when I had no others made sense at the time.”
He sighed. “I suppose it makes sense again. I know the C.O. at Bailey Base—well. His name’s Colonel James Flood, and we went through basic training together back in the long ago dinosaur-times day. He’s been workin’ on some cutting-edge training programs at Bailey, focused on what he calls “adaptive tactics.” And you’re just the Marine to help him, Captain.”
I looked at him wide-eyed.
“Consider yourself on leave for two months, and then report to Colonel Flood. Meanwhile, I’ll push the right paperwork through and make sure you get assigned quarters on the base; you might not end up livin’ on Bailey permanently, but it’ll be a good place to start.”
I frowned. “I’m not asking to leave Afghanistan or the Battalion permanently, Colonel Edgington.”
“If you find yourself in the position of wanting back in the fray, get in touch,” he said. “But, honestly, Son, it seems that fate is dealing you a different hand that’s well away from this shitstorm. You should play that hand out till the end. Anyway, that little boy’s gonna need someone in his life that understands how to live through hell! And I know you’ve been around enough amputees to help him with that, too.” He looked at me pointedly. “Hell! I know you’re in contact with at least ten amputees that you’ve commanded.”
I looked at him in question.
He stood up. “Like I said, Captain, the way you take care of your men—both when they’re here and when they’re pickin’ up the pieces back home—is legendary.”
I stood as well. “Thank you, Sir. I don’t know what I would have . . . .” My voice trailed off.
He shrugged. “I know what you’d have done, Son. You would have finished out your tour like the good Marine you are. However, you would have come to hate the Corps for keeping you from that little boy that you so clearly love like your own blood. At first opportunity, you would have resigned, carrying that bitterness with you for the rest of your life, rather than being able to focus on all that you have accomplished while on active duty—and all that you still could at Bailey. And that would have been a damned crime!” he emphasized.
I nodded, knowing that he was probably right. “It’s been a pleasure serving with you, Colonel.”
“The pleasure’s been all mine, Son,” he said sincerely. “Flood will take good care of you. Now—you’d better get yourself packed. It appears you have a family to see to.”
I nodded again, feeling a little dazed.
I guess I did have a family of sorts—at least for as long as I was needed. After that—well—I wasn’t sure about anything, except that Colonel Edgington was assigning me to Bailey Base in Shreveport, Louisiana, where I might find a home of my own—someplace I could still serve the Corps.
And remain close to Jason and—if God spared her—Sookie.
So this week’s second chapter is coming to you a bit early. I am going to be busy, busy, busy tomorrow, so I thought I’d rather get it to you early than late.
Thank you all so much for the continued comments about this story! The scene at the end of this chapter—between Eric and Russell—was the first thing I drafted for this story. I was at the doctor’s office; he’s usually fast at getting people in, but—that day—he was running behind. I found myself with no papers to grade—for once. I did have my little notebook and a pen though. The rest is—as they say—history, and the story grew backwards and then forwards from this scene. Anyway—just wanted to give you a little tidbit.
So—I really put Sookie and little Jase through the wringer. I wanted the accident to feel abrupt to you. I also tried to describe it almost like a battle. I wanted to put this right after Eric’s dangerous mission in the previous chapter to point out the idea that no life is guaranteed past the moment that we find ourselves in. Also, one of my friends (in the Air Force reserves now) told me about a friend of his who served several tours—only to be in a traffic accident one week after he got home. He was paralyzed from the waist down. Anyway, let me know what you think of the chapter if you have the time and/or inclination.