Carter heard the low scream of the F-16s rising above the idling car engine, but didn’t look up. He had been in Lebanon long enough to know that by the time he heard the jets, they had already passed overhead and, with the trees here along the river, out of sight. He had listened to them all week, on the road and during two restless nights in Beirut, feeling the concussion of explosions that punctuated the wake of the supersonic roar. As they traveled south, Carter had watched the sky, glancing up with the hope of seeing them before they were gone. Sometimes he had, watching until they were out of sight, and once in a while he had seen them release their bombs, like grains of salt scattered over the fields at Carthage. They fell for almost ten seconds, then a cloud of smoke, then the sound. During their nights in Beirut, when the bombs fell close enough, he heard the bomb itself, a hard, gritty roar dropping in pitch and spinning, like an eighteen-wheeler decelerating; to Carter, it was how falling should sound. All day, Carter had led the Red Cross aid convoy east from the coast, parallel to the Litani River, trying to find a southbound crossing. They were heading for Yaroun, a Christian-Shiite town near the border with Israel, which had sustained heavy damage. Every time Carter heard the F-16s, he imagined it was the last bridge they had targeted, that he was too late. He was going as fast as he could, the road clogged with people fleeing toward Syria. He drove a land cruiser leading a Lebanese ambulance and six trucks sent by the ICRC containing blankets, tents, food, water, and medical supplies. Carter rolled the car forward, then brought it to a stop again, and with a loud exhalation, shoved the transmission into park. “We might not get through this,” he said and looked at his wife, Marisol, beside him. She sat with her feet curled under her, childlike, her shoes deposited on the floor, the undersides of her small white socks shaded with dust. Her dark hair was tied back from the pale skin of her face – blushed now from the sun – the ends brushing the base of her neck when she turned to him, blue eyes narrowed. “How long’s the traffic been like this?” Through her window he could see the river, which flowed seamlessly back toward the coast. He looked at his watch. “Almost an hour.” “It’ll clear up,” she said. “It has to go somewhere.” “Not if the bridges are out.” “All of them?” “That would be the goal, don’t you think? No point in taking out just one.” “That’s a little drastic,” she said. “It’s realistic.” “Why do you always worry?” “I’m paid to worry.” Carter pulled a map out from the door pocket, already folded open, and traced the Litani with his finger. “If there’s no bridge, we can’t get to Yaroun. They’ve been holed up, caught in the crossfire for almost three weeks, and no one’s reached them. You’ll have more than a few patients there.” “It’s not a lost cause because we hit some traffic.” “Some traffic?” Carter turned to look over his shoulder. “I can still see where we were a half hour ago.” He tossed the map onto the dashboard. “I just try to be prepared …” “For the worst? Nice. That’s cheerful.” “Yes, for the worst. I’m looking at reality. What might cause traffic in a warzone … Construction? No. Rush hour? No. Oh yeah, a pair of F-16s just blew the shit out of the last bridge. Optimists, care to comment? It’ll clear up soon? Really? I doubt it.” Carter picked up a two-way radio and flipped it on. “Shut off your engines, guys,” he said. “Save the fuel. We’re gonna be here for a while.” He shut the car off. Marisol had turned away and was looking out her window at the river. They had come to Lebanon on an ICRC supply ship from Cyprus, then spent the night in Beirut. The city was broken, no power or water, the air heavy with smoke and concrete dust, which settled over the streets. People were evacuating. It took most of the next day for Carter to organize the convoy, while Marisol went about her business, sometimes stocking the ambulance, sometimes off on her own. Early in their relationship, Carter had worried about her in the field, but over the past six years, at refugee shelters across four continents, Carter had learned to trust that she could take care of herself. But this was a war, their first, and in her absences that afternoon, bombarded with the logistics of the convoy, he couldn’t help wondering where she was – each time a jet flew by – and if she was all right. It was early the next morning, yesterday, that Carter pushed Marisol too far. There was too much blood on the sheets for him to back down, to accept that it was normal. “I’m the doctor,” she said, “and I’m telling you I’m fine.” “Then why are you bleeding?” Her face and tone were patronizing. “Happens every month.” “Not like that.” He stood. “If you don’t tell me, I’ll cancel the mission and take you home until I know you’re all right.” They stared at each other in silence. He crossed the room, picked up his Blackberry, and scrolled through the numbers. “I was pregnant,” she said. “You lost it?” She shook her head. He was still sitting on the edge of the bed, looking out at the Mediterranean through the window, when she returned from bringing her luggage down to the trucks. “We have to go, Carter,” she said. “Why didn’t you tell me?” He could hear her moving further into the room, but didn’t look at her. “Because of this,” she said. “Because I knew you wanted it.” “Then why would you do that?” When he turned around a moment later, she had gone. They spent yesterday driving south. Today, they had been driving east along the river all morning. Marisol reached into the back seat and pulled a bag of trail mix out of the duffel on the floor. She took a handful, then offered him the bag. He ignored her. “Are you okay, Carter?” “Sure,” he said, “just fine.” “You’re building walls again.” Carter laughed and got out of the car. Through the slamming of his own door he heard Marisol’s open. “Carter,” she said over the hood of the land cruiser, “I’m worried about you.” “Since when?” “Don’t push me away.” He turned and walked back along the convoy to the ambulance. He lifted a hand to the driver, then pulled an ax off its hooks. “What are you doing?” Marisol asked. Carter walked by her and down the shore to the bank of the river. “Carter?” She followed. He looked up into the canopy, searching for a tall, straight trunk. “Help me find a tree.” “For what?” He held up the ax. “I’m gonna climb it.” He took a few steps downstream and looked up again. “If I drop it right, we can use it as a bridge.” He found the tree he wanted, braced his feet, and swung the ax, gratified to feel the blade sink deep into the wood. He wrenched it free and swung again. Marisol sat on a rock nearby and watched. Carter broke a sweat quickly in the humid summer air. A small audience of bored volunteers gathered, watching. When he paused – weary, his shirt soaked through – one of the medics offered to take over and Carter relinquished the ax. Marisol handed him a bottle of water. He sat down beside her, but didn’t say anything. Carter made the final cuts to drop it across to the other shore. When the bridge was ready, he organized trips across, transferring the supplies to the southern shore where a second team set up a temporary camp. By the time they had emptied the first truck, traffic was moving again, and Marisol led the drivers on in hopes of finding a bridge where they could cross, then circle back. * * * Night had fallen before Marisol returned, the stars and a full moon brightening the sky, black from power outages. As evening faded, she had radioed – to Carter’s frustration – that they’d found a bridge almost a dozen kilometers upstream and were about to cross. Carter was sitting on the south bank of the river with a mug of coffee when he heard the trucks arrive. He stayed where he was, listening to the jets above. He could tell by the sound whether they were coming in to attack or returning from a strike, and how far away the bombs had hit. This was not like Desert Storm, with the nighttime air raids and stealth fighters and antiaircraft tracers. The F-16s came when they wanted, day and night, the targets specific, the JDAM smart bombs they dropped able to hit their mark from whatever altitude they were released. The jets didn’t have to dive. The only way to know where a bomb would hit was to see it fall, which left a window of under ten seconds, or hear the bomb in its descent. Carter was alone, and at the water’s edge, with the moonlight reflecting cold on its surface, he felt it. He could hear the camp behind him as the staff settled in for the night, but it was not their company he missed. Marisol would find him soon. He wanted to hold her again, to trust her again, to tell her everything was forgiven, but it wasn’t. He couldn’t. He understood that medical care in the field was rudimentary at best and that giving birth would be dangerous for both Marisol and the infant. The birth of a child would pull them out of the field, and Marisol was too committed to make that sacrifice. But there remained a great distance between understanding and acceptance. When he heard her behind him, he didn’t turn around. “The camp’s ready for the night,” she said. He nodded. “We’ll continue south in the morning. Head toward Tayr Falsayh.” Marisol sat facing him and placed a medical kit beside her. “Is that coffee?” she asked. He nodded. “You won’t be able to sleep.” “I haven’t slept well all week. Coffee’s not gonna make it worse.” “It won’t help, either.” She took the cup from him, keeping his fingers clasped in her own, and poured the coffee on the ground. “Jesus, Marisol.” He tried to pull his hands free, but she held him. He was too tired to struggle. She set the cup on the ground. “Let me see your hands.” He opened his palms and she ran her fingers over them. His hands were calloused and rough, blistered from the ax. Hers were slender and smooth and felt fragile in his, but they were strong, a surgeon’s hands. He had seen their intricate work. “You’ve been working hard,” she said. “The trucks made it,” he said. “I got impatient.” “Then so did the volunteers. You gave them something to do.” “They’ll see through it.” “So what? You’re their leader. You led them.” He shook his head. “I lost control.” Marisol opened her kit. “Here,” she said, “I brought this for you.” She took out a tube of cream and squeezed some into her palm, then began rubbing it into his hands. “I want things to be the way they were, Carter. Nothing mattered when we were a team. I hate feeling foreign to you now. We’ve been through a dozen hells, but you found something to love in each place. You got me through. When you held me through that storm – I thought nothing could hurt me when you were there. That’s why I wasn’t afraid to come to this war. But it’s breaking us.” “It’s not the war, Marisol.” “You can’t sleep. You’re always watching the sky.” “Maybe I’m praying.” “Then it’s for something different now. Isn’t there something here you can love?” He looked away. “It’s gone.” She let go of his hands. “We could leave, go back to the places we were happy. I want us to be the way we were.” He shook his head. “We’ll always carry this with us.” “We could try.” “We have a mission here.” In her face, Carter could see her frustration. Marisol took a deep breath and stood up. “South in the morning?” Carter nodded. She picked up her kit, then paused. “Don’t think you’re the only one who hurts.” He tossed the empty coffee cup to her. She caught it. “You got what you wanted,” he said. She walked away toward camp. “Get some rest,” she said. He would sleep but, listening to her receding footsteps, Carter knew he would not rest. And though they might never see another warzone after Lebanon, he knew they would never leave the work. It had become more than a job, like an adrenaline junkie’s need to climb higher, move faster, dive deeper. It begins with an honest desire to make a difference, but becomes jaded when touched with reality. With scope. Some give up. Some settle for a compromised ambition. Some push on, obstinate until the end no longer matters, only the road. He understood Marisol’s fear that a child would tear them from this life, but he knew: they would never stop of their own volition, never settle. They wouldn’t stop until they were too broken to go on, or until it had killed them. A child, Carter believed, was the only thing that could save them.* * * The church had burst from the inside out, like the concentric ripples of a sound wave over water, the hole from the shell’s entry preserved in part of the shattered roof, the windows blown outward, bits of glass sprayed across the lawn and pavement. Marisol was driving now and Carter, in silence beside her, saw the church as the convoy passed through the district of Bint Jbail into Yaroun. Carter had grown up Irish-Catholic in a small New England town and a general sense of faith and prayer had stayed with him, and it saddened him to see this church in violent ruin. Israel would not have meant it as a target, but the smart bombs they dropped, he knew, were only as perceptive as the distant intel that programmed them. Marisol, too, had spent her childhood in church, daughter to Baptist missionaries in Africa. But she lost her faith early, witnessing a village raid as a child, which jaded her mission experience and propelled her down two roads, the first to recover the fragmentary faith she now held, the second to become a trauma surgeon. Carter had known this story from the beginning of their relationship when they were working for a Catholic mission in northern Ecuador. In Africa, the soldiers had come under the cover of darkness and a thunderstorm. On the first night that Marisol operated in the field at Carter’s refugee shelter, a strong monsoon passed through the foothills. Her hands began to shake, her focus shattered. Carter stood with her, spoke to her, comforting and guiding her through the procedure, in constant touch the entire night until the storm was over and they woke – curled together in a corner of the tent – to a watery sunlight dripping through the tent flaps. The road into Yaroun was pockmarked from bombs; broken homes, the shells of burned cars, and a few abandoned tanks lined the street, the dusty ground littered with the debris of missile parts. With an impending UN ceasefire, Israel had increased its firing of cluster-bomb rockets into the southern region of Lebanon, each rocket dispersing up to a thousand bomblets, sowing the land with mines. Since the night at the river, Carter and Marisol had barely spoken. Marisol had always been mindful of her surgical record and, though she wouldn’t tell him, Carter knew she kept her own statistics in her head. But she was careful to avoid emotional investment and not let her successes or failures affect her. Over the past two days, Carter had watched as, with each patient, she withdrew further and further into herself, going about each procedure with a mechanical coldness, then going to sleep alone as soon as she was done. If Carter had been ready to speak with her again, he would have asked if she was feeling all right. The main road into Yaroun was impassable, forcing them to take a series of backroads, which led them past the shattered church. The town was spread out across several of the low, rolling hills that characterized the landscape and, with the heavy shelling and firefights that had raged in the area, the residents that stayed had remained in their homes. Carter directed the convoy to set up their clinic in the parking lot of the hospital, no longer in operation. People began coming down from the hills, supporting injured friends and neighbors. Volunteers drove the emptied trucks around town, shuttling the wounded. The limited medical staff was immediately overburdened. Carter felt a small swell of pride as Marisol assumed charge of the clinic, her triage decisions instinctive. She was still withdrawn, but the adrenaline rush from this flood of patients had revived her. After the three weeks of fighting, many of the injuries were old, which complicated treatment with blood clots, scar tissue, and infection. Marisol would do what she could. She would not blame herself for patients she lost. She would move on, one reason why Carter could never do her job. This was the Marisol he knew – precise, elegant – no longer the silent woman beside him in the car. This was the Marisol he wanted back; yet this was the independence and cool efficiency that had separated them. A pair of jets flew overhead. They were not attacking, but he watched them anyway. He lost sight of them behind the apartments of a neighborhood half a kilometer away, from where, as he looked down, three children emerged. They froze, huddling together as the sound of the flyby caught up with the aircraft. Seeing the children, Carter wished for two things: that he could have known they were there, and that their parents would soon follow them outside. He knew neither would come true. When the sound of the jets had faded, the children continued toward the clinic. Carter watched them approach. The oldest was a young woman of perhaps fifteen, the boy looked about eight, and the youngest was a girl no older than five. Led hand in hand by her sister, the young girl was crying and stopped in the street halfway to the clinic, forcing her sister to lift her into her arms, where she buried her face into the offered shoulder. The boy’s hands were crudely bandaged and a line of red marked the older girl’s cheekbone, but Carter knew his staff was occupied. He stepped out into the sunlight from beneath the tent and asked the young woman if she spoke English. She nodded. “I learn in school.” “And them?” “A little.” She put her sister down, who still clung to her leg. “My brother need help. Are you doctor?” “No,” Carter said, “but I’ll do what I can. What’s your name?” “Asima.” He led them under the tent. “And your brother?” He gave them each a bottle of water and sat down with the boy. “Fadi.” “Hey there Fadi, I’m Carter. Let’s take a look, okay?” Fadi glanced up at his sister, who spoke a few quiet words in Arabic, and he nodded. Carter spoke to Asima as he unwrapped the bandages, looking quickly back toward their home. “Where are your parents?” “I’m their mother now.” Beneath the wrappings, the skin of Fadi’s palms was seared black, with patches of pink where blisters had broken, third degree burns that had bled a tawny fluid into the cloth. The burns were several days old, the blisters trying to heal, the dead skin hardened. Carter soaked three sterile washcloths in cold water. With the first, he swabbed the burns clean, applied a mild disinfectant, then washed them again. The other two cloths he wrapped around each hand. “You’re very brave,” he said. Fadi, eyes to the floor, flickered a smile. While the burns cooled under the compresses, Carter took Asima aside. “Your brother needs to be in a hospital. His burns are beyond what we can do here.” Asima shook her head. “They are afraid. They have not left home since …” She looked away. “We can take him. We’ll be transporting other …” “Thank you. No.” “Then let me give you some things so you can clean his hands, and for his pain.” They returned to the tent. Carter sat down with Fadi again and removed the washcloths, dabbed the burns dry, and wrapped them with gauze. He set the rest of the roll back in the medical kit. The girl left Asima’s side and slowly, on tiptoes, went to the table and looked into the kit. She reached up and took the gauze. “Nida!” Asima said. “It’s all right,” Carter told her. He smiled at Nida. Glancing at Fadi, she unwound the entire roll and began looping it around her hand, finishing one, then pausing. Carter took a pair of scissors and cut it for her. She wrapped the second. With their hands bandaged, Fadi and Nida left the tent. Asima called to them in Arabic. Carter was looking at her when she turned back. “I told them to stay close,” she said. He nodded. “You sound American.” Carter smiled. “I haven’t been there in a long time.” “You miss it?” “America?” “Your home.” “I’ve been away too long.” “But you can still go back?” Carter reached out his hand and placed his thumb against her cheek below the thin laceration. “You could use a few stitches.” She glanced away toward her brother and sister. “No.” “It will scar,” he said. She shrugged. “May I clean it?” Asima paused, looked again at the children, who were occupied together outside the tent, then nodded. Carter began cleaning her wound with a cotton swab and hydrogen peroxide. “What cut you?” “Glass.” Up close, she appeared more innocent; she looked her age, her skin smooth, unweathered. She’s too young for this, he thought. She was a virgin mother without a miracle. Her eyes began to glisten, and when she blinked, a small tear fell. “When I hear the missiles coming,” she said, “I cannot breathe.” Carter painted antibiotic gel over the cut, dabbed it dry, and closed it with two butterfly strips. “You speak very well,” he said. “I cannot go to school now.” Carter gathered together some first aid supplies – sterile gauze pads, ice packs, medical tape, antibiotic cream – and gave them to her. “You will,” he said, “soon.” The way she smiled told him she wasn’t convinced. “You do not know that.” “It will get better,” he said. She thanked him and joined her siblings, kneeling with them on the pavement. Nida touched Asima’s cheek. At the sound of the flaps to the OR tent being thrust aside, Carter turned to see Marisol stumbling out, pulling off her gloves and mask, then falling to her knees at the edge of the parking lot, dry-heaving over the grass. One of the medics followed and stood with her hand on Marisol’s shoulder. Carter stood watching. “Doctor,” he heard the medic say, “are you all right?” Marisol leaned back to sit on her heels, her hands clasped tightly across her lower abdomen. “I’m fine … shit.” She bent forward again. “Did she lose it?” Marisol nodded. “I don’t want to see it.” The medic nodded, then stepped back and walked to the tent. As she passed, she met Carter’s eyes; he looked back to Marisol, who had curled herself up, face touching the grass. He turned to look after Asima. She was walking across the parking lot, calling again to Fadi and Nida, who had scampered ahead, to stay close. They kept running, already halfway home. Carter lifted his eyes skyward and in the distance glimpsed a pair of F-16s approaching. In the corner of his vision, Marisol was pulling herself to her feet. He stepped out from under the tent, shielding his eyes from the sunlight’s glare off the clouds and, watching the planes pass overhead, saw the grains of salt released from their wings. He lost them for a moment in the stratosphere, then found them again as the soundwave growled in – hearing too late the jets in attack mode – and he began jogging forward, calculating their trajectory as the bombs grew. Behind him, Marisol yelled his name, but he was running and ignored her, then sprinting, and he was shouting too, “Asima … Asima … come back! Get them back!” The children – almost home – had stopped when they heard the jets and now looked back at him, but they didn’t move. Glancing upwards again, with the sound of falling spinning in his ears, he caught sight of the pointed cylinders hurtling toward earth and chanted “two … one” in his head. Asima was there, frozen in front of him. He kicked his feet out and slid, pulling Asima to the ground with him and throwing his body over hers as her apartment burst outward with a plume of mortar dust and gravel that rained shrapnel down over them, biting into his skin. All sound bled from the world. Only an immanent vibration remained. A ringing in his ears. Carter lifted his head. Marisol was running toward him. He helped Asima sit up. Other than a few scrapes, she appeared unhurt. Carter, too, was bleeding. Their clothes and skin and hair, like the street around them, were coated with chalky concrete dust, which caked into their fresh wounds. Marisol slid to her knees at his side and held his face in her hands, saying something. He shook his head. He couldn’t hear her. As his ears began to recover, the first sound he heard, as though at a great distance, was Asima screaming. She was struggling to stand, using his body for support. He stood with her, his own legs unsteady, and looked across the street. What of her apartment complex that had not been blown over a half-kilometer radius had disintegrated into its foundation. Fadi and Nida were nowhere in sight. Carter yelled something, unintelligible to his own ears, and moved forward. He felt Marisol clutching at him and he pushed her away, told her to stay with Asima, who had sunk again to the ground. He stumbled further into the debris field, trying to remember where he’d last seen the children. He found Nida first, her tiny body broken, half-buried under the rubble. It took him a moment longer to find Fadi, off to one side, unconscious, but alive, his pulse evident in the bright red blood that pumped rhythmically from a deep gash in his leg. Carter bellowed Marisol’s name twice as he tore off his belt, threading it around Fadi’s thigh though the hemorrhaging had already stopped. When Marisol arrived with a medical kit, Asima straggling behind, Carter had started and abandoned CPR and now sat crying with Fadi’s head cradled against his chest. * * * Marisol sat facing Carter across a small metal tray laid out with a suture kit. She had insisted on taking care of him herself. Her cleansing was thorough, her sutures quick and precise. She stood close to Carter, stitching a cut on his forehead, and he could feel her breath against his cheek. “Tell me if this hurts,” she said. “I can give you more anesthetic.” He didn’t respond. “Will you be okay?” “You’re the doctor.” “You know what I mean.” “I should ask you that.” She tied off the last suture, cut the thread, and stepped back. “It’s strange being a patient in your own clinic,” she said, “isn’t it.” Again, Carter made no reply. “Any medical care less than what we’re used to … it’s strange.” “Is this your usual bedside manner?” She smiled and began the sutures. That evening, Carter took a flashlight to illuminate his path for cluster bombs and walked down the road to the ruined church they had passed along the road into town. All afternoon, he had wanted to pray – there were children whose souls needed to get into heaven – but he couldn’t find the words. Fragments of colored glass ground like ice between his shoes and the concrete sidewalk, and up close he could see fissures in the stone walls and crumbling mortar. The thick wooden doors hung precariously over the entrance on bent, obstinate hinges. Carter walked around the church and stepped inside through one of the empty windowframes. The interior was gutted, burned, broken, the air acidic with the smell of stale chemicals and smoke. Splinters of shattered wooden pews littered the floor, some pieces charred to black, others with sides split to a fresh, naked white that glowed in the beam of his flashlight. The heat of the explosion had stained the walls a sooty gray and a dust of ash and mortar covered the floor. The altar – driven backward and askew, its front surface scorched – still stood. Carter walked to it and lowered himself on sore legs to his knees, feeling the grit of the dust through his jeans. Carved into the altar he could still see the Greek letters alpha and omega; he reached out and traced the latter with his fingers, leaving streaks along the dark, hardened residue that coated it.
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