Shreveport, Louisiana • June 25, 2010 • 0530 hours/5:30 a.m.
All things considered, I’d slept well in the hospital room. Of course, there’s no way that I could have slept through the nurses doing their bi-hourly checks on Jason. After all, as a Marine, I’d been sleeping with one eye open for a very long time, and any noise I wasn’t used to would rouse me. Plus, I’d needed to know that Jason was still doing well—from one of those checks to the next. Placating that need, the nurses had humored me by speaking aloud Jason’s vitals as they’d taken them—just so that I could know he was well without needing to get up to spy through his chart every couple of hours.
At 0400, I’d risen and stood next to Jason, holding his little hand and offering words of encouragement and strength for his upcoming surgery. He’d woken up for only a few seconds, but he had remembered that I would be there, and he’d seemed comforted because of it.
That alone made me know that I’d made the right choice by coming to Louisiana.
Jason had been wheeled out of his room at 0445. I’d taken the opportunity to shower and change into my fresh uniform. And then I’d found myself pacing until Nurse Halleigh—not to be confused with Holly, another of the current shift’s nurses—suggested that I go in and wait with Sookie.
Not that she would be conscious for the visit. Nurse Halleigh had just figured that we’d be better off “waiting together.”
Since Sookie was in a more “germ-sensitive” part of the ward, I was required to do what Nurse Halleigh called a “light scrub in,” which meant that I had to put on gloves and a gown over my clothing before I visited Sookie’s room. My boots were also covered with little booties that barely stretched to fit. However, my high and tight haircut wasn’t deemed in need of a cap to cover it.
I found myself wondering if Colonel James Flood was a stickler about haircuts. Honestly, I was ready to grow mine out a bit—nothing too long, but enough to be able to style it a bit. Don’t get me wrong—the high and tight was something I was used to, something easy to deal with in a combat zone. But I preferred letting my blonde hair get to the point that its color could actually be seen! Of course, it was quite possible that—when I finally got to grow it out—it would be gray.
Nurse Halleigh showed me how to get myself ready and then led me to Sookie’s room.
I knew I’d never—not as long as I lived (even if I managed to make it to 100)—forget my first “in-person” look at Sookie Herveaux.
For lack of a better word, I was “shell-shocked.”
Unlike Jason, she had a tube down her throat helping her to breathe due to her collapsed lung. Her right leg—the one that had suffered the compound fracture—was raised up and in traction. And she still had a neck brace in place, likely to help keep her broken back relatively immobile. I could tell that part of her usually lustrous blond hair had been shaved, and she was sporting a large bandage on her head. Like Jason, she also had various bruises and abrasions covering the flesh I could see. She was pale, even though I knew her to keep a tan from the times I’d seen her on Skype.
But my shock had not come from her serious condition.
It was her beauty—bursting forth through all the bandaging—that struck me, creating an unexpected feeling I’d never experienced during my life. I’d seen pictures of Sookie from Bill. Hell! I’d held on to one of those pictures ever since I’d packed up Bill’s footlocker to send his belongings home to his widow! I’d also seen Sookie on Skype, of course.
But—in person—she was breathtaking to me, even in her current battered condition.
Feeling rattled, I considered leaving the room. I could not—would not—entertain ideas about Bill’s wife! It didn’t matter that he was dead and gone or that she had married again. Sookie was Bill’s girl. She was his: the love of his life, the mother of his child.
“She’s in bad shape, huh?” Nurse Halleigh said from behind me as she walked around me to go to the bed to check Sookie’s vitals.
“Getting better though—right?” I asked, my voice barely seeming my own as it roughly conveyed the question. I swallowed hard.
She turned briefly to smile at me. “It was real rough going for a while there, but her vitals are stronger and more consistent today, so I think she’s gonna get to see her little boy—or, at least, be moved to his room.”
I nodded, not wanting to test my voice again.
Finishing up her checks, Nurse Halleigh scooted a chair closer to the bed. “I’ll come by with updates about Jase’s surgery. I think Dr. Brigant told you it was gonna take about five hours—right?”
I nodded. “Yes, Ma’am,” I managed.
“How about I bring you some coffee. The stuff from the machines is like tar, and what the cafeteria offers isn’t much better, but we keep our own maker in our breakroom.” She grinned and whispered conspiratorially. “In fact, if you bring in a couple of bags of ground and promise to make a fresh pot whenever you empty one, I’ll show you where the maker is.”
“I thought food wasn’t allowed in here, Ma’am,” I said, my eyes still fixed on Sookie.
“Coffee or water is okay, Captain—as long as you keep the drink away from all the machines. How do you take yours?”
“Thank you, Ma’am,” I conveyed. “I just take it black.”
She blushed. “It’s the Ma’am stuff,” she giggled to explain her reddened face. “And probably the uniform,” she added fanning herself like a schoolgirl.
“Regardless, I appreciate the kindness,” I said sincerely. “You and the others have gone above and beyond.”
“So have you,” she said just as sincerely, “and all the others like you. You were in Afghanistan?”
I nodded. “I’ve had several tours—some there and some in Iraq. My latest was in Afghanistan.”
“I have a brother that serves—Army,” she shared and then chuckled. “He never was one to do well in school, but he’s a real good soldier. He makes our parents real proud.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” I said with a nod.
“Well—I’ll get you that coffee. It’ll have to be in a Styrofoam cup, but if you bring your own travel cup, you can start using that.”
“It really is very kind of you and the other nurses to offer,” I reiterated.
“You’re gonna be here for a while,” she sighed. “Even once they stabilize, they’ll likely stay on this floor for several weeks so that they can be monitored more closely. And—from what I hear—you’re planning to be here just about every night—right?”
“Best to make yourself a little at home then,” she grinned, patting my arm on her way out of the room.
Without the conversation to distract me, I again focused my attention onto Sookie. I still hadn’t moved closer to the bed, and a part of me desperately wanted to bolt away from the room.
Of course, the feeling was illogical, and it disconcerted me like nothing else ever had. I’d never run from anything before—not even when I knew someone would be shooting at me if I moved forward!
And—of course—Sookie wasn’t a threat.
She felt like something greater to me.
But I was a Marine. And Bill was my brother, the closest friend I’d ever had in my life. “You’re Bill’s,” I said softly, but firmly, even as I recognized the ridiculousness of my statement. Of course, a person couldn’t belong to another, at least not in the way I was thinking. And—from Jason—I knew that Sookie was an independent woman, having gotten her business degree in just three years. I knew that she’d also used Bill’s life insurance from the Corps to buy Merlotte’s, a bar and grill in Bon Temps that the previous owner had needed to sell after his aging mother had asked him to move home to Texas in order to help her out.
According to Jason, in addition to managing Merlotte’s and getting her degree, Sookie also did the bookkeeping for her husband’s construction company. I’d often wondered how she found the time to do all that she did, and I determined to ask Tara and Amelia if things were being taken care of in respect to Sookie’s business and bills. I was an adept bookkeeper—having first gotten some experience in Mrs. Cataliades’s accounting firm during my senior year of high school. And—even after that—I’d often been the go-to person my C.O.s would turn to for filling out paperwork, which included making inventories and filling out requisition requests for essentials like food, hygiene products, clothing, weapons, and ammunition. I was also used to making duty schedules. Of course, I’d never managed a restaurant, but I figured I might be able to help.
I had hoped that thinking through all these practical matters might have caused my feet to move, but they hadn’t—not one step closer to Sookie’s bed.
I was interrupted from my frozenness by Nurse Holly, who arrived holding a large travel mug.
“Hello, Captain! Halleigh said that she’d lassoed you into our coffee ring,” she winked.
“Coffee ring?” I asked.
She chuckled. “We rope a lot of our long-term visitors in. Basically, they supply us with free coffee in exchange for a little of their own. It’s always a better deal for us,” she grinned as she handed me the cup. “A past visitor left his travel mug behind when his wife was released. Trust me—this works a lot better than Styrofoam,” she said, wrinkling her nose in disgust.
I didn’t bother to tell her that I’d had a disproportionately large amount of coffee from Styrofoam cups. Of course, I agreed with her negative assessment of them. It just didn’t seem healthy to drink coffee from a cup that always warped and melted a bit around the hot beverage.
“Thanks, Ma’am,” I said with a nod.
“You know, we do the glove and the gown thing in here just to be sure, but you shouldn’t worry about the germ thing too much. You can sit next to her,” she emphasized, gesturing toward the chair closest to Sookie’s bed. Clearly, she’d taken the fact that I’d stayed hovering around the door as reticence to approach Sookie out of fear for her health status.
“Yes, Ma’am,” I said, finally getting my feet to move and going over to the chair to sit down. “Thank you,” I added again, raising the coffee cup.
“You’re welcome, Captain,” she smiled before leaving the room.
I took a drink of the hot coffee; it was really good. I’d have to ask Corporal Reynolds to shop for some more. The Marines bought in bulk, of course. And the coffee they got couldn’t be defined as high end by any stretch of the imagination, so I had no idea what would constitute a good coffee brand anymore. And I didn’t want to buy the nurses crappy Joe.
Carefully, I put the beverage onto a little table behind me and looked at Sookie’s monitors. Her numbers didn’t seem as strong as Jason’s had been, but they were steady. I knew that for sure; indeed, I studied them for at least 20 minutes, my eyes focused on the machines only.
After I’d distracted myself with the medical equipment for as long as I could—and, truthfully, once the pull of looking at Sookie again impaled my discipline—I followed one of the lines from the IV machine to Sookie’s pale arm. Following an impulse that I couldn’t quite stop, I reached out and touched that arm with the lightest of contact humanly possible.
Even through the gloves, that touch was enough to determine that her skin was soft and smooth; however, I did not let my touch linger. Instead, I stood and took a step away from the bed.
“Hello, Mrs. Herveaux,” I said formally; I’d learned to call her by her new husband’s name not long after her marriage to Alcide Herveaux, though it had been difficult to not think of her as Mrs. Compton. She’d asked me to address her as Sookie once, but it had been difficult for me to do so—even in my head. And during the few times I’d spoken with her via Skype, I tended to address her as Ma’am.
“Mrs. Herveaux,” I repeated, “I don’t know if Tara or Amelia told you that they called me in Afghanistan. They did, but it took me some time to get here; I apologize for that. You might be wondering why I’m here at all.” I took a deep breath. “Jason asked for me—you see? So they called me, and I came.” I was at a loss of words for a moment. “I came here to make sure you and Jason are squared away, Ma’am,” I explained, not knowing if she could hear me. “I arrived yesterday and will be here until you and Jason are on your feet again,” I clarified, even as I thought of Jason’s amputation. He would get on his feet again—just one of them wouldn’t be made of flesh and blood. “I know you’d prefer that Mr. Herveaux was here with you—or Bill’s parents. But I promise I’ll do my best. Jason’s in surgery now, getting some pins in his left leg to set his broken femur.” I checked my watch. “He’s been in there for 90 minutes now, and they say the procedure should take about five hours, so he’s well on his way, Ma’am.”
I stopped speaking, not exactly sure what to say or do next. “Your friends, Amelia and Tara will likely be here at about 0800—I mean 8:00 a.m. That’s when visiting hours begin. It’s about 90 minutes from now.”
Again, I stopped speaking, trying to think of something else to tell her—other than that she was beautiful and made me feel things that were extremely inappropriate, given the situation.
Obviously, it would be wrong to tell her that she was the most captivating creature I’d ever seen or that my entire body seemed to gravitate toward her. It would be wrong to convey that my heart was swelling, just being in the same room with her. It would be wrong to let her know that I longed to take her hand and to hold it—to beg that she wake up so that I could see her eyes up close. It would be wrong to tell her that I wanted to climb into her bed next to her, just to hold her in my arms and tell her that everything would be okay.
It was wrong to even think those things! It was impossible to contemplate saying them.
But thoughts like those were the ones my tongue seemed to want to speak out, so I kept my mouth shut.
Happily, my eyes fell upon a little table in the opposite corner of the room. On it were several books, including the bible and a couple of well-worn, hard-bound classics. I’d never been one for religion, though I did believe in a higher power. Soldiers tended to go in one of two directions when it came to God while they were in the middle of a combat zone. Some came to doubt his existence because of the horrors they saw and experienced firsthand. Others found themselves saying prayers to themselves before they went into an active warzone and even more of them while they were in the thick of things.
All I knew was that I was the prayer kind of soldier. And—yes—I’d seen horrors enough to justify doubting that there was a God. Hell! The sight of Sookie’s broken body might have made me doubt. Not to mention the tragedy that had put her into that bed and Jason onto an operating table on the floor above us. But—instead of doubting God—I found myself saying a little prayer, asking Him to look over Sookie, just as I’d prayed earlier that Jason would be looked over during his surgery. Ultimately, I’d seen a lot more miracles—times when people should have died, but didn’t—than I’d seen horrors.
So I guess I was religious enough, though I’d never even picked up a bible. Of course, I knew enough about one to know that I wouldn’t have the vaguest idea about where to find a good story for Sookie to listen to. And I also knew that some of the bible wasn’t that pleasant. I’d seen The Ten Commandments once—shown to the troops around Easter during one of my years in Iraq—so I knew that some stories had a lot of death and plagues. I didn’t want to risk reading one of those, so I picked up the other two volumes. One was The Great Gatsby and one was Jane Eyre. Though I’d read neither one, I chose the latter, thinking it might be more appealing to Sookie.
I returned to the seat, feeling much better for having a task to perform, and took a drink of coffee before opening to the first page of the novel. And then I read.
A/N: Hello all! I hope that you enjoyed this chapter. It’s a bit shorter than the usual for this particular story; however, this is where the natural ending came.
I won’t go into details, but it’s been a hard week for me. So, if you have a moment and a kind word about this story, I hope you’ll leave it. Your comments always help, and I’d be especially grateful to them today.
Until later this week.
Again, I didn’t ask Seph for character banners for this story because most of the characters are familiar and “cast” just like in the show. However, below is a banner Seph made for another story so you can visualize that character.