Shreveport, Louisiana • June 24, 2010 • 1500 hours/3:00 p.m.
I landed in Shreveport, Louisiana sixty-eight hours after I left Kabul. I’d managed to gain a little more than half a day’s worth of time, compared to Afghanistan, but it felt like I’d been losing time since my first call with Amelia Broadway.
Losing some kind of race for Jason and Sookie’s lives.
I sighed deeply.
My initial flight had taken me to Okinawa, but I’d had to wait a while before there was something that could get me to the United States. Of course, it got me only as far as Honolulu. Another flight had gotten me to San Diego, where I had a 7-hour wait before my flight to Shreveport, which was convenient in a way, for I’d been able to go to the old storage facility I’d rented after my parents’ home had sold. Using the hot metal enclosure as a dressing room, I had found out that most of the civilian clothing I’d kept was too small. Still, I’d packed the few things that still fit—some T-shirts and sweatpants. There was also some useable furniture in the storage facility, items I’d taken from the cook’s old rooms where I’d stayed after my parents’ deaths.
The base commander at San Diego had ordered two wet-behind-the-ears Marines, who were—and I quote—”deep and dirty on his shit list” to pack up my meagre belongings into a large vehicle owned by the Corps. Furthermore, he’d ordered them to drive that vehicle to Louisiana to deliver my items to quarters that had already been arranged for me on Bailey Base. Finally, they were to move in my belongings as if they were “precious antiques belonging to the base commander’s own sainted grandmother” before driving the vehicle back.
They had two days to accomplish their mission—without getting a “fucking scratch on Marine property”—if they ever wanted a chance to find their way off the Commander’s “shit list.”
Had I not been distracted by my desire to get to Jason’s side, I would have likely listened more carefully to what the Marines had done to piss off their Commander to such a great extent. The way he’d laughed when they weren’t present indicated that the story was a funny one, but I’d zoned out in the middle of his tale when I’d seen a Marine jogging by with a prosthetic leg.
I couldn’t help but to think about Jason. Serving in the middle of combat zones for more than a decade had exposed me to more than my fair share of amputees. I almost always saw them in their worst states—sometimes barely stable enough for transport to Berlin or Okinawa for greater care. Colonel Edgington was right. I’d kept up with the amputees that had served under me, a list of twelve men and one woman.
Land mines and trip wires were both little bitches.
I knew from letters I’d gotten back from the Marines I wrote to that life without a limb was difficult, even for the strongest of spirits. I knew that Jason was strong—a resilient little boy with so much light in him that a person couldn’t help but to love him. But he was also just eleven years old. To be facing a whole life without his leg would be
hard for him to come to terms with.
And—from a call I’d exchanged with Amelia while I was waiting for my flight from Okinawa to Hawaii—I’d learned that Jason wouldn’t even be able to start working with a prosthetic for his right leg until the femur in his left leg had healed. Indeed, his rehab would start with that remaining leg and then move on from there. And the speed of recovery would be up to both Jason’s healing time and his attitude about walking again.
And—of course—the little boy was bound to be crushed when he became aware enough to know that his stepfather and step-grandfather and Gran were all dead. I couldn’t even begin to guess how he’d react if his mother died too!
I just knew one thing. Jason would not be orphaned!
No matter what, I would be there for him. I knew that his paternal grandparents, too, would be there for him, and Amelia and Tara—both friends of Sookie—were there even as I couldn’t be. I didn’t know what my role would be in what was to come. But I knew one thing for fucking sure—Jason would never be put in a position of believing no one wanted him!
Not as long as I lived.
Even if no one else could take him, I would fight for custody of him to my dying breath!
“Captain Northman,” a young Marine greeted to me as I deplaned. “My name’s Lafayette Reynolds, and Colonel Flood told me that you needed a ride to Shreveport General.”
I nodded. “I do, Corporal.”
“I also have the keys to your new place on the base. I’s been whipping the yard into shape too,” he shared. “I’s also been told your furnishings and whatnot will be gettin’ here sometime tomorrow. I’ll be makin’ sure all’s in order when your belongings gets here,” he informed as we walked briskly toward his vehicle.
“Thank you, Corporal,” I said.
“You’s—uh—want to go to your quarters before the hospital? There ain’t much to it yet, but you could ‘least shower and whatnot,” he said.
“Unless you can smell me from there, I’ll go right to the hospital. Could you take my belongings over to my house though? And—at some point—when visiting hours are over at the hospital, I’d imagine—I’ll need a ride from the hospital to my quarters.”
The Corporal nodded. “No problem, Captain. I’ve been told to make sure you have everything you need.”
We got into the car and buckled up. Corporal Reynolds wasted no time starting the engine and getting us moving. I appreciated that.
“Bailey Base ain’t that big, Captain,” he said after about a minute of driving silently. I sensed that he was not one for long silences. “And Colonel Edgington was my C.O. during my last tour in Afghanistan. You should know that he called me personally—since he knows I’m stationed at Bailey—so that I could help you out till you gets settled.”
“The Colonel is a good man,” I said sincerely.
“I’s his personal assistant for a stretch of time,” Corporal Reynolds shared. “I’d been banged up during a battle, but not enough to come home. Mostly, I was too fuckin’ scared to get back into the field for a while,” he said, pointing to his head. “The Colonel—well—he’d already taken me under his wing a bit since I’m,” he paused for a moment. “Put it this way,” he said his thick Southern accent somewhat difficult to decipher,” no one asks, and I don’t tell.”
“Understood,” I said, realizing that Lafayette was telling me that he was gay.
He chuckled as he made a turn onto the Interstate. “Colonel Edgington said you’s was cool like that. ‘Course he had no idea when he told me a bit about your situation that I’d know the people involved.”
I looked at him with some confusion.
“Tara Thornton—du Rone now—is my cousin,” he informed. “And I’s known Sookie since she was knee-high to a grasshopper.” He sighed loudly. “I went to school in Bon Temps—graduated the year after Sookie’s brother, Jason. That was the year before Bill and Sook. I was friends with Bill. And it was after I heard that he died that I got my shit together.” He shook his head. “At the time, I was barely hangin’ on to a job washin’ dishes at a dive. And I was spendin’ what little money I did make on drugs, which I also sold for a spell.” He looked at me sideways. “After Bill died, I took a look in the mirror. And I didn’t like what I seen there. I went to a recruiter the next day. But he didn’t take my black ass.” He chuckled a little.
“You told him about the drug use?” I asked.
He nodded. “I told him everything—except about that thang you ain’t ‘sposed to ask and tell ’bout. The recruiter told me he should reject me outright—seeings as how I’d done so much stupid shit in the past. Instead, he told me that, if I came back every month for a year, gave a urine test, and told him three things I’d done to improve myself in the time since he’d seen me last, he’d let me in.”
“And you did,” I said, smiling slightly.
“I think I shocked the hell outta him!” the Corporal laughed. “But I made it, and I did okay for myself—until I was banged up. I refused the meds—you see? And that included the ones they tried givin’ me when I couldn’t sleep after I was hurt.” He shook his head. “I didn’t wanna risk it—you know? Plenty of soldiers start havin’ problems once they start countin’ on meds for pain and,” he paused, “to keep themselves goin’. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to resist gettin’ hooked, given my history of addiction.”
“It’s admirable that you didn’t take the meds,” I said sincerely.
“Self-fucking-preservation is what it was,” Corporal Reynolds laughed. “Trust me. I almost did—you know? I almost took ’em. That’s when the Colonel stepped in and made me his assistant. He kept me outta combat for about six months—held me back till I was ready. He made me see a shrink, who taught me how to deal with pain without the aid of chemicals. And—when my tour was over—Colonel Edge helped me get stationed here so I’d be close to home.”
I nodded, smiling a little at the nickname Colonel Russell Edgington had earned over the years—mostly because there was always an “edge” to his planning—a calculated risk that was difficult to accomplish but led to disproportionately big results. Even in the short time I’d served under him, I’d learned a lot.
I took a deep breath and asked a question I’d been holding my tongue not to ask for the last several minutes. “Corporal, have you seen Mrs. Herveaux? Or Jason?”
He shook his head. “No, Sir. But I’s been gettin’ news from Tara. I woulda gone to see ’em both, but—according to Tara—Jase is still out of it most of the time, and he don’t know me well anyhow. I don’t get to Bon Temps that much, even though it’s close. My life is at Bailey.”
I nodded in understanding.
“Sook has only been able to have visitors off and on,” he sighed. “I’ve tried to visit a couple of times when I wasn’t on duty, but she’s either been in surgery or in the more critical part of ICU that don’t allow visitors that ain’t family to go in there.”
I frowned. “Mrs. Herveaux doesn’t have family here though.”
He nodded. “Other than her Cousin Hadley, who’s focused on her own little boy, Hunter, Sook really don’t have any family left—’cept for Jase, of course. The hospital’s makin’ exceptions for Amelia and Tara. But—uh—well Tara told me that they sort of implied to the doctors that you really are Jase’s uncle—as in Bill’s actual brother. So—uh—you won’t have any issues seein’ Jase or Sookie.”
“I see,” I said. Generally speaking, I wasn’t a fan of lies, though this was the second one that had been told to get me to Jason’s side in the last several days.
I sighed. In the Corps, there simply wasn’t time for lies, and—thankfully—I’d never been in a position where I had to tell the men and women under my command a lie. Of course, I had needed to hold back the complete truth much of the time. Some of these omissions made following orders easier for the troops. Some of these omissions even kept them alive.
In fact, my most recent omission of the truth had culminated in me catching the Taliban spy who’d been posing as our local liaison. I’d hidden my knowledge of both Dari and Pashto, the two most common languages in Afghanistan, and I’d been able to hear the bastard in the act of transmitting unauthorized information.
The Corporal was looking a little pensive. “Tara thought you ought to know about the uncle thing before you got to the ICU.”
“I appreciate that,” I said as we pulled up to the hospital and he parked in a drop-off zone. For the first time, I looked down and thought about what I was wearing. “I’ll need some civvies,” I observed. I was wearing my camos and knew I’d stand out in the civilian hospital. The last time I’d worn civvies had been during my visit in London, and the Ravenscrofts had kindly allowed me to keep those clothes in the room where I’d stayed in the guesthouse on their estate since I didn’t need them in Afghanistan.
“You have a brand preference?” Corporal Reynolds asked.
I shook my head.
“I can pick you up some jeans and casual shirts—if you like,” he offered.
“I’d appreciate that, Corporal. And some things to sleep in—flannel pants and plain T-shirts would do. And tennis shoes,” I said before rattling off the sizes of my latest uniforms as Corporal Reynolds tapped out some notes on his phone. “And I’m going to need to buy a vehicle, too,” I added.
The Corporal nodded again. “I’ve gotta friend named Hoyt Fortenberry that owns a Chevy dealership. You tell me the time you want to go, and I’ll have him waiting for you so that you can get the errand done quickly—unless you have a preference for a different brand.”
“I’ll need a van—something easy for Jason,” I mused. “A lot of cargo room since he’ll likely be in a wheelchair for a while. And who knows what Mrs. Herveaux will need. So I should plan on room for two people that are in need of wheelchair room.”
The Corporal gave me a look like he was trying to figure me out. “I’ll make sure Hoyt’s got some choices for you, or I’ll have him tell me somewhere else.”
I nodded. “I’ll let you know when I’ll be available to meet with Mr. Fortenberry after I assess the situation.”
“Understood,” he said as he handed me a card. “My number’s on the back. Visiting hours is over at 1900 hours, but you might be able to stay past then, or you might wanna leave early. Just call whenever you’s ready to head out. It takes me round about 15 minutes to get here from the base, so keep that in mind.”
I grabbed my small knapsack. My larger duffle was in the trunk. “Thank you, Corporal. I’ll see you this evening,” I said, exiting the vehicle.
I took a moment to look up at the modest-sized hospital and took another to take a deep breath. And then I went in.
I’d been directed from the front reception area to the fourth floor, where critical care patients were kept. Once there, I entered into a relatively large waiting area with a small play zone for children in the corner. The ICU entrance was kept locked, so I had to check in with a nurse behind a glass window.
She was on the phone and didn’t really look at me as she lifted a finger to indicate that I should wait for a moment.
I couldn’t help but to look around a bit as I did so. Five people were in the waiting area, all of them with pensive, frightened looks on their faces. Clearly, the waiting room wasn’t a happy place to be.
I turned back to the nurse as she put the phone down. Her name tag read Indira.
She looked up at me and gave me the reaction that I was used to encountering when I was wearing my uniform around civilians: a mixture of awe and surprise—as if seeing a soldier was somehow unexpected.
Almost immediately, her expression changed to one of recognition. “You’re Eric Northman, aren’t you?” she asked.
In truth, it felt strange not to be addressed as Captain, but I still nodded. “Yes, Ma’am. I’m here to visit Jason Compton.”
She nodded vigorously and called back over her shoulder for another nurse—Maggie—before looking at me. “Maggie will take you back.”
I heard a buzzing noise, and the glass doors next to the window opened. Taking my cue, I walked into the ward and was met by a kind-looking nurse who looked to be in her fifties, though I wasn’t that great at judging ages.
“We sure are glad you’re here, Captain,” she said after glancing at my insignia. I figured that she had a Marine in her family or maybe she’d heard my rank from Amelia or Tara. We started walking further into the ward, and I noticed that there were several different hallways with a staffed nurses’ station in the middle of each.
“Now—you need to prepare yourself,” Maggie said softly, but firmly. “That little boy was really put through the ringer, and he’s still on some heavy medication to get him through the pain. He’s confused, but he’s been askin’ for both you and his momma whenever he’s awake, which hasn’t been that often.”
“Ms. Broadway prepared me,” I said.
She looked up at me. “Sookie’s doin’ better today,” she sighed. “She’s still in a coma, but her prognosis is better than it was yesterday. Her latest surgery went well, and her temperature is now at the high end of normal.”
I nodded, even as I let out a sigh of relief.
“Both Sookie and Jase have the same team of doctors, and Amelia’s told ’em to expect you. They’ll be around to give you an update soon.”
“Thank you, Nurse Butler,” I said, looking at her nametag.
“Call me Nurse Maggie if you like,” she smiled at me. “Around here, we nurses tend to go by our first names—since we’re with you for long stretches of time.”
I figured my eyebrow must have risen in question because she explained further.
“We do twelve-hour shifts here—3 or 4 of them a week. But I’m sure you’re used to long days,” she commented.
“Yes, Ma’am,” I replied as we approached a door that was propped open.
A tired-looking woman was dozing off in a chair near the bed, but I took only a moment to notice her before taking in Jason.
Of course, I’d never actually met him in person, but I’d seen him so many times via Skype that I could tell right away that he hardly looked like himself. While he was usually quite tan, he was as pale as the white sheet that covered him. He had some bandaging around his head and several abrasions on his little face, and his left cheek was quite swollen. His arms, one of which had an I.V. attached to it, were both out from under the covers and were covered with bruises, scrapes, and bandages.
Yes—I had seen grown men with injuries similar to Jason’s. But seeing a child so broken caused me to gasp.
“Because of his leg injury, he needed a lot of blood,” Maggie said in a whisper. “And he’s still very weak. It’s hard to find AB-negative, and the doctors would prefer not to have to give him more O-neg blood, though I’m betting they’ll give him more before and/or during his next surgery.”
“I’m AB-negative,” I shared. It was one of those odd things that Bill and I had had in common.
“Really?” Maggie asked, excitedly. “Would you be willing to donate?”
“Of course,” I said. “You can have as much as I can give him,” I emphasized.
“When is his next surgery?” I asked.
“Hopefully, it’ll be his last—poor guy,” Maggie sighed. “It’s scheduled for tomorrow morning. The doctors need to go in and put some pins in his left femur. They did the bare minimum they needed to do with it when he first got here. Other priorities came first,” she sighed unhappily. “Plus, there were some swelling issues, and—during his last surgery—his little heart had some arrhythmias. And—given the bruising around it—the doctors didn’t want to push it by keeping Jase on the O.R. table for too long.”
I nodded. I knew all about priorities when a person had suffered multiple injuries. I also knew that—often—many surgeries were needed to put someone together again.
“His leg, of course, is stabilized and immobilized, so don’t worry about him injuring it further. But Doctor Brigant—that’s our best orthopedic surgeon—wants to get some pins in there so that the bone is sure to heal quickly and like it needs to.”
I nodded again, even as the woman in the chair woke up. It took her a moment to get her bearings, and when she did, she gave me a weary smile. “Eric—I mean Captain Northman,” she said, standing up and walking over to Nurse Maggie and me.
“Eric is fine,” I said. “Ms. Broadway?”
“Yes. But call me Amelia,” she instructed, even as Nurse Maggie went over to Jason’s bed and checked his machines and then his pulse points on his neck and then wrists. She grabbed his chart and wrote down a few notes before patting Amelia’s arm on her way out the door.
“Has he been awake at all today?” I asked quietly.
“He came around a couple of hours ago, but I don’t think he really registered what was going on. He asked for his mom,” she said, tearing up. “And then he asked for you again.”
I nodded and approached the bed, taking Jason’s hand.
“Hello, Jason,” I said softly. “I’m here now. And I’m going to take care of you,” I said, my voice sounding as emotional as I’d ever heard it.
Little Jason moaned a bit and then opened his eyes, though he spent a while focusing.
“Uncle Eric?” he asked with a mixture of surprise and grogginess.
“Hi, Jason,” I said, smiling down at him.
“Where’s Mommy?” he asked, his voice sounding as child-like as it had when he’d been five years old.
“You’re in the hospital, Jason,” I told him. “You and your mother were in a car accident, and she’s in a different room.”
He frowned. “Will you get her?”
“I can’t, Jason. But I’ll check on her for you—okay?” I promised.
“Okay. Do you have to go away to fight today, Daddy?” he asked, though his eyes had closed, and he seemed to be fading away again. I knew that his naming of me as “Daddy” was happening due to the drugs he was on and his association of me with Bill, but the word still made my heart beat quickly.
“No, Jason. I’m not going anywhere.”
A/N: Well—Eric and Jase are finally meeting in person for the first time. Horrible circumstances—I know. Many of you remarked about the last chapter, and I very much appreciated your comments! Thanks so much for your comments.
I decided to bring Lafayette into the mix in this story because I love his character. Of course, every time I write him, I feel so sad that Nelsan Ellis died so young. So sad. He brought Lala to life, and in the show and in writing, he’ll always be with us. But still so sad he’s gone.
Please respond if you have the time/inclination.