Charlotte had a soothing voice. Or, at least, that’s what everyone told her back at Civilization. They said that that’s what made her such a wonderful nurse: whether they came in with contusions and broken bones, or fever and infection, or even cancer, she could bring solace to their contorted faces and, sometimes, a smile. If she could do that, well, war should be no different. She held herself formally at the edge of the helipad, hands clasped together and white nurse’s outfit gleaming in the half-light of dawn, her back as straight as the nuns could make it at the convent from which she came. Around her, a group of medics stood at attention, and beside her were her sisters in a line, a white wrinkle of healing on the scarred face of Vietnam.
They had received little instruction from the Powers that Be—that is, the higher-ranked military running the medical compound—about what they would await on the helipad. At first she had found the military jargon unsettling, an ever-present reminder that she was far from home, but after a surprisingly short time, a few days really, she had begun using it in her everyday speech and eventually in her thoughts.
She had also become acclimated quite readily to the military codes of con- duct, as they were so like the rules of etiquette she had observed at the convent. She rubbed the back of her hands unconsciously, remembering the sharp pain of a ruler whipping across her light skin and the dull ache of the welt that had appeared minutes later. Obey the rules, or there shall be consequences. A mantra ingrained deeply into her mind, seated next to her reflexes and her Pavlovian response.
A soft thumping sound pulled her away from her reverie, and she looked up to see a mass of approaching helicopters, low-flying and black, the sun glancing off their rotors so that they seemed to spark and burn. The soldiers, red crosses emblazoned on their chests, began to chatter excitedly, scrambling to assemble the last remaining stretchers and to move the jeeps from the landing area. The sound was deafening now, like a thousand rulers slicing past her ear. Charlotte flinched, then clasped her hands again, preparing for the worst as the helicopters swung down, unsteady, finally gaining hold of the ground with one runner and slamming down on the other. She could hear screams from inside the helicop- ters, and the acrid smell of sulfur could not mask completely the sharp scent of spilt blood. It took Charlotte several seconds to realize that the something, soaked crimson and limp, was a person.
Bile rose to Charlotte’s throat, and she bent over gagging. Beside her an older sister murmured, “Lord, help us,” tears in her icy eyes, but already she was moving forward to help along with all of the other sisters. Charlotte wrenched herself into motion, her discipline just overpowering her need to fly, to hide, to escape this Hell. She approached a growing group of men writhing on the ground, awaiting their turn on the jeeps. How could she be of any help? There were so many of them.
A young man whimpered just to the left. He was young, perhaps nineteen or twenty years old. A pool of red gathered around his leg while his face remained pale, eyes pleading. She knelt down quickly beside him, putting her hand on his arm for comfort as she surveyed the damage. There was so much blood; it just kept spreading and spreading. Was it on her face? Had she caught it, like a disease, to become another name lost in thousands, row after row, lying beneath white crosses beside their brothers and sisters until the Day of Judgment? Was it running in rivulets down her cheeks, blurring her vision? No. She tasted salt as it reached her lips, and she wiped it away, ashamed.
A bullet had torn through the boy’s leg, perhaps nicking the artery in its flight. Charlotte took a deep breath and then pulled a tourniquet from her bag. She leaned close to the boy’s face and murmured, “You’re going to be fine.” He gave a weak smile, a momentary twitch at the corners of his mouth.
“Don’t lie to me. No point.”
The words were forced out on the exhalation, shot to pieces by his shuddering body and gasping lungs. She wiped her eyes again, hurriedly, slipped the tourniquet around his leg, and tightened. He doubled up, screaming. She clutched his shoulder, and the back of his head, and laid him down gently as he moaned, his hands clenched into fists, the knuckles betraying the thin bone be- low. No longer appealing for relief, his eyes were closed shut, trapping the misery behind wrinkled lids. Sweat beaded his forehead even as he shivered, arching his back up toward the merciless sun.
Charlotte wished that they could switch places, but she knew this was selfish. Surely, no physical pain could exceed hers. She contented herself with wrapping the wound as well as she could, each layer soaking through despite her effort so that the next time she passed a hand over her face she left a streak of red. Was she helping at all or bringing a dying boy more pain before the end? “You’re doing fine,” she said, her voice a bit too high. There was no answer.
“We’ll get you on one of the jeeps, and take you to the camp, and patch you up, and—” she stopped, hearing engines. “See? They’re here.” Turning, she saw a medic bounding from a jeep toward them. He looked to be about thirty-five, with a hard face and piercing eyes. He would know what to do, how to save the boy. She felt a wave of relief; he could carry her load, release her from her bur- den of guilt.
But as he came closer, he slowed, peering at the pool still spreading around the boy’s leg. He set his jaw forward, and then, coming to a decision, he motioned for her to come forward. Hesitant, Charlotte rose and drew near to the man. He cleared his throat.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but this one’s long gone. Even if he doesn’t bleed out, he’s probably gotten the leg infected. I suggest you move on.” Before she could say a word, he was already walking away, away to judge all of those men and boys, to dictate their remaining time on this careless, beautiful earth.
Abruptly, she spun to face the boy, still writhing on the ground, nails digging deeply into his palms. She knelt beside him and considered staying, guiding him away. Instead she whispered, her lips almost touching the boy’s ear, in a voice audible only to the boy and God, if He was even listening, “I’m sorry.”
And she returned to the cacophony surrounding her, only her body left intact.