My lungs sucked in air, bringing consciousness and chaos rushing back to me. And pain. A fuck-ton of pain stabbing into my left arm.
My vision was blurred as if I were underwater. I couldn’t move, my body pinned down by something heavy on my chest. I could hardly gasp under the weight, reduced to shallow breaths. Gunshots, shouts and mortar fire distant through the ringing in my ears.
I blinked hard, forced myself to focus, and found the anchor pressing me down was Wes. He lay sprawled on top of me, his head on my chest, his helmet obscuring his face. His shoulders rose and fell—but was that him breathing or my breath moving him? I didn’t know if he was alive or dead.
Alive. He has to be alive.
Terror ripped through me, carrying adrenaline on its currents.
“Wes,” I croaked. “Wes…”
My gaze darted all over. I struggled to sit up and pain ground its steel teeth into my elbow, leaving me somewhere between puking and passing out.
I spit more curses between my teeth as I moved my left arm into my line of sight. A length of jagged shrapnel was lodged under the skin of my forearm. A wound so impossible, so ugly and wrong, it looked fake but for the pain that was howling up to my shoulder.
I turned my head this way and that, assessing our situation. Wes and I were exposed with no cover at the southern edge of the village. Figures moved through the blasted shells of homes, ghost-like in the smoke and dust. The fight was still happening but moving eastward.
My gaze snagged on a crater in the earth, smeared with blood. A little kid’s sandal in the center. I remember running toward the owner of that shoe, trying to save him, to grab him and get behind some cover. I reached for him and then…
My memory had been blown to bits too, but I only had to look down to see my best friend lying motionless on top of me, covered in dust and blood, to guess what happened.
Wes chased me down. He saw what I didn’t. He carried me away. He saved my ass.
A sob tore out of my constricted chest. Wes shielded me with his own body, taking multiple shots as we lay exposed.
And now he’s dead.
“Wes,” I cried. “God, no…”
Agony’s jaws still locked on my arm, I scooted out from under him and gently eased his head to the ground. His eyes were closed, his mouth slightly open. I put two fingers to his throat. Tears stung my eyes when I felt his pulse, faint and way too slow, but there.
The relief was short-lived. As I walked on my knees, inspecting his wounds, a nauseous fear rose up in my throat. A bullet hole on the back of Wes’s thigh had soaked his fatigues with blood, all the way down to the boot. My fingers moved around his waist and under his body armor and found three more gunshot wounds. But it was the shattered fragment of bone poking through his hip that got me in the gut.
“God, no, come on, Wes…”
I forced back the tears, digging deep for my training. We were exposed. The closest cover was a pile of rubble, maybe ten yards away.
I crouched on shaking legs and took hold of Wes’s rucksack with my right hand. I gritted my teeth and pulled. Wes’s deadweight scraped across the gritty sand an inch.
“Come on…” I sucked in three deep breaths, clenched my jaw and pulled. Another inch. Fuck, he was too heavy and I was too weak.
Gunshots ripped the air open, followed by an explosion. Debris showered down and the adrenaline roared up in my three good limbs. Like the mom that lifts a car to get her kid out from under it, I grabbed Wes with my one good arm and hauled ass to safety. Once behind the rubble, I fell to my knees beside him.
“You stay with me, Wes,” I said, sliding out my own rucksack. “You hear me? You fucking stay with me. Don’t die on me, or I’ll fucking kill y—”
My stomach heaved as my rucksack strap caught on my left elbow.
“Medic!” I screamed as I worked to get my aid kit open. “Wilson, goddammit…”
I dug into my rucksack and found my CAT. One handed, I fought to slip the belt-like tourniquet up Wes’s right leg, getting it above the wound. I turned the clip around and around, tightening the belt until the clip wouldn’t turn any more. Once the blood stopped flowing from the ragged hole in his leg, I strapped the clip into place.
“Medic!” I screamed. “For fuck’s sake, I need a medic!”
I went to my aid kit again and grabbed my XSTAT. In training, we called them tampon shots. I tore the package off the over-sized syringe with my teeth and put the nozzle against the gunshot on Wes’s hip. I depressed the plunger and the absorbent sponges filled the gaping wound, instantly soaking up the blood.
I was fighting for consciousness now. My vision grayed out and in as I assessed a bullet hole in Wes’s lower back and another wound higher up, under his body armor. They needed tending but I didn’t have the training or the strength. I sat on my ass, hard, exhausted. I sucked in one last deep breath and put everything I had behind it.
“Medic!” I screamed so loud my voice turned ragged at the end, a small pathetic scrap against the machine of war. “Jesus Christ, someone help him…”
Like a tree falling in slow motion, I lay on my good side, tight between Wes’s body and the wall of rubble keeping us hidden.
“Wake up,” I said hoarsely. “Wake up. Right the fuck now. Don’t you die, Wes. Please…”
The world began to pull away. Even the pain in my left arm seemed distant. No more gunshots. Only a few faint shouts reached me now. Through the tinny ringing in my ears, I heard a woman’s cries. I didn’t know if we won or lost, only that each ticking second was bringing Wes closer to death.
I took his slack hand in mine. “You hold on, okay?” I said. “Listen to me. Don’t go away, Wes. You stay and listen, okay?”
I shut my eyes for a moment, tears squeezing between my lashes.
“Stay with me, Wes, and remember…remember the time…we were about fourteen…hanging out in Jason Kingsley’s rec room? Bunch of guys sitting…talking about girls. Trying to be tough?”
I swallowed hard, my throat full of glass and sand.
“We were all…boasting about whose ass we wanted to tap, and ‘fucking that pussy’…as if we weren’t all virgins.” I chuckled tiredly. “But not you. You were shooting darts, and you…you had a crush on Kayla Murphy. I remember it…you kept shooting while telling us you wanted to kiss her. Kayla Murphy. I’ll never forget it. You said, ‘Kiss her in the little well of her collarbone, where her heart beats.’”
In my dimming vision, I saw shapes running toward us. Silhouettes of men.
“All the guys just stared at you,” I said. “Remember? You turned around with a dart in your hand and your face was like Fuck, what did I just say? But instead of taking it back or making a joke…you just shrugged and said, ‘Yep, that’s what I’d do,’ and went back to shooting those damn darts.”
I chuckled as Wilson, Jeffries, and a couple of our guys surrounded us.
“Our friends had no idea what to make of that,” I said, still holding Wes’s hand because nothing would ever make me let go. “They just stared at you a good minute, then burst out laughing. Remember? They thought you were kidding. I laughed too, but I knew you weren’t kidding. You weren’t fucking kidding at all, were you, Wes?”
Time wandered away from me. When it came back, guys from our unit were loading us onto the chopper.
“On my three,” Wilson yelled over the roar of helicopter rotors. He counted off and his team rolled Wes onto a stretcher. They’d removed his body armor and his midsection was now heavy with bandages. As he was settled on his back, something fell out of his vest pocket. A bent, bloodstained notebook.
I stared through sand and wind being thrown around by the chopper. The pages of the little notebook fluttered in the hot gusts, looking like a wounded bird.
I grabbed it before it could take off and flipped through, stopping at a poem, scratched in ink. The words tear-stained and smudged with blood.
At the bottom, his signature. Like a confession.
His name, not mine.
“Yes, Wes,” I said, tears streaming down my own cheeks. “This is the truth. This was always the truth.”
We climbed into the chopper, and more medics worked frantically over my best friend. Saline drip and an oxygen mask, but I saw one shake his head grimly.
Someone helped me buckle in and tried to treat my arm.
“Leave it,” I barked. “Get me a pen.”
“A what?” the medic asked over the din of the whirring helicopter blades. “A pen?”
I looked over to Wes, his eyes closed, his face a ghastly shade of white.
“Give me a goddamn pen,” I screamed.
The guy left my field of vision, then came back with a ballpoint and put it between my fingers. I held the notebook against my leg with my throbbing left hand—the arm which felt scarily numb—and scratched with my trembling right hand across the back of the notebook.
Wes wrote this and everything else. For you.
I tried to write her address, but the pen fell from my fingers. I pressed the notebook against the medic’s chest, my eyes falling shut under a wave of dizziness as the chopper lifted off.
“You have to mail this. Mail this…”
“What? Your arm—”
“Fuck my arm,” I said. “You have to mail this. Autumn…Autumn Caldwell. At Amherst University…Ridell Hall. No…Rhodes…?” My vision grayed out again and this time my eyes wouldn’t open. “Fuck, I can’t… It’s Amherst. The school. You got that? Autumn…”
Then blackness came down.