by Jennifer Valk, PPCC English Instructor
Jennifer Valk is an English instructor at PPCC. She served on active duty as a combat medical specialist from 1998-2005 t in Fort Hood, TX, and then at Madigan Army Medical Center in Fort Lewis, WA. She also served in the Texas National Guard at Texas City from 2005-2006 in the same profession. She is the proud mother of Ian Valk, a former PPCC student who recently joined the United States Air Force.
Standing in front of a soldier who was dressed completely in black with absolutely no identification on him and staring down the barrel of his weapon at 0200 hours on a Friday morning was not how Specialist Arina Curtis had expected her life to end, especially since she also knew that said soldier was one of their own. This was supposed to be a training mission – even if it was in the middle of the desert a few thousand miles away from home.
There was no moon that night, and the clouds had decided that they needed to cover the stars completely. The industrial lighting around the compound was blinding in its whiteness. She glanced back at the ambulance where Sergeant Mason was waiting and glared when he waved his hands in a shooing motion at her.
There was a slight possibility she was being dramatic and the black-ops soldier wouldn’t really kill them. Maybe. It’s not like the commander didn’t warn them to stay away for nothing.
“You need to turn around and head back the way you came before I shoot you,” the soldier said as she turned back toward him.
“Yeah. You’ve said that a few times now, but I kind of need to know where I’m going before I can.” The wind picked up and blew the sand up around them, getting into their eyes and mouths. It scratched at the back of her throat and she hoped that she wouldn’t go into another coughing fit.
The soldier stood up straighter, pointing his weapon directly at her heart.
Arina cleared her throat. “Right. You’re not really going to shoot at us though, are you? Because if you are, could you maybe aim for like, the vehicle or something? I think my NCO needs a little scare.”
He cocked his weapon. “You need to turn around and head back the way you came before I shoot you,” he repeated, voice just as monotone as it had been every time before.
Arina threw her hands up and huffed. “Fine! Yeah. Okay, I get it! Jeeze. You’re useless to me, do you know that?”
“You need to turn around and head back -”
A gun-shot came from somewhere beyond the walls of the camp; the bullet landing just a few meters shy of where Arina stood, but well-clear of the guard at the compound gate. The sand flew up getting into her eyes, making it feel like her retinas were being scratched, into her ears and muting the sounds around her, and worse yet, into her throat making the ever-present cough want to well back up.
“Holy Fuck!” The words were garbled and phlegmy. She sprinted back to her vehicle anyway. She was not about to stick around to find out if the bullets were real or not. She caught a glimpse of Sergeant Mason sitting in the passenger seat, staring at her with wide-eyes as she beelined around the corner of the Hum-V. Arina yanked the door open, jumped into the seat and turned the vehicle on. Slamming her foot on the accelerator, she turned the vehicle around in one fluid motion.
“What the hell is going on, Curtis?” Mason yelled, his voice accusing. “Did you figure out how to get back to the Clamshell?”
Still reeling from being shot at, and trying to get her breathing back under control, Arina ignored the NCO at her side.
It wasn’t working. She could feel her heart trying to beat its way out of her chest while her lungs burned for air, as the pneumonia she had been fighting off since they landed in the god-forsaken Mojave Desert decided to rear its liquid-y head in her bronchial tubes. Every attempt at a deep breath was smothered by the burning pain of a suppressed cough and it all finally came to a head in a massive coughing fit that wracked her entire body. Tightening her grip on the steering wheel, she tried to keep her eyes focused on the desert while they burned with the tears of her lungs. The hacking became so intense that her body instinctively curled into itself. Her feet came up off the pedals and she lost control of the vehicle.
“Curtis!” Mason grabbed the wheel and jerked it to the right. “Push the brake. Arina! Push the damn brake! Fuck! What is going on, you idiot?” She could hear the terror in his voice and sense his fear as they headed straight for a sand dune, but the coughing – the painful, wheezing, wracking coughing – just would not stop
As the mountain of sand loomed over them, Arina had two thoughts of clarity: The first – we’re going to die because of a coughing fit and a sand dune and the second – I think I would have rather taken my chances with a bullet. At least it would be a more honorable death.
The vehicle jolted to a stop. The sudden impact of it jerking them forward. The seatbelts strained against their chests and then slammed them back into the seats. Arina’s remaining breath was pushed from her body. Who knew that whiplash could cure coughing fits so well? She fumbled for the door and pushed it open. Falling to her knees, she crossed her arms over her chest, and wheezed into the night air, gulping up the cool breeze as best as she could.
“Get up Curtis,” Mason grumbled from beside her. She nodded her head but stayed where she was. Breathing was a necessary evil. She would be damned if she moved before she had it under control. He was just going to have to wait. The Sergeant huffed and grabbed her under the arm, pulling her up to face him.
“I fucking hate you,” she whispered. The wheezy quality of her voice didn’t match the intense anger in her eyes.
He sighed and said, “Trust me. The feeling is entirely mutual,” then lightly pushed her toward the vehicle and went to his own side. She sat in her seat with her head resting on the steering wheel, taking deep wheezing breaths.
“Are you okay?” Mason’s voice was gruff from screaming.
Arina scoffed, though it was weaker than she would have liked. Keeping her eyes forward, she said, “what do you care?” They had been at odds ever since he got promoted, and this was the first time he had shown any interest in her well-being.
“Really, Rin? We’re going to do this?” His tone was incredulous and she could feel his stare burning into the side of her head. She didn’t want to give him any slack though. He was the one that ruined their friendship. She didn’t feel like being in emotional pain on top of the physical; there was no way she could handle it right now.
But when his stare didn’t falter she huffed and gave in. “’M fine. Never better. Nothing like almost dying twice in one night all because your NCO is an idiot who can’t navigate.” She jammed the start button, revving the engine back to life and pulled away from the dune.
“What did they say?” Mason asked, breaking the tension and stillness of the dry air.
“You’re an asshole and you shouldn’t have left me to be shot at.” Her answer was clipped and left little room for response, but he persisted anyway.
“Where are we going? Did they at least tell you how to get back?” He asked.
The last question was rewarded with an incredulous glare. “Are you stupid? Once you got your rank, all your brain cells just left? They literally just shot at us and you think they gave us instructions on how to get back?” Her voice steadily rose as she asked each question.
“You better watch it, Curtis. I’ll have your rank.”
Arina laughed with no humor, causing the scratchy-tickling feeling at the back of her throat to flare up again. She coughed a couple of times and took a deep breath to push the rest back down. She hated being sick. Then she said, “by all means, Sergeant,” she took one hand off the steering wheel and waved it in the air, “please, feel free to take my rank.”
Sergeant Mason frowned at her. “You are decidedly blasé about that,” he retorted.
“Oh yes.” She smiled. “Here’s the thing. The most they’ll do to me is take away my four, push me back to a three and give me extra duty. I live in the barracks, Sarge. I eat at the DFAC. I have a meal card, and my car is paid for. The only bills I have are a credit card and insurance. I’ll be fine. But you? You won’t be fine after I give my side of the story.”
He scoffed, “I’m not sure I’m following your logic.”
“It’s simple really,” she added sunshine to her voice to annoy him. “The commander had to give special permission for me to be out here because my recovery period isn’t over. He had to override the doctor’s orders which specifically stated that I was to be on bedrest until I am fully recovered.” She looked at him briefly to see if he was getting her point.
His eyes widened when it hit him. By the commander overriding the doctor’s recommendation, anything that happened to Arina on this mission made the commander liable. The commander would then place that blame on the NCO responsible for her safety. Sergeant Mason groaned at her sound logic.
“Fine. We just won’t mention any of this.” At her raised eyebrows and pointed look to the night sky, he amended, “except that we got turned around.
She snorted but didn’t say anything else. The silence that descended between them was thick but she ventured nothing to break the tension. It took Mason fifteen minutes before he ventured to ask again where it was that they were going.
Huh. He held out longer than I thought he would.
“We’re going to backtrack. The last crew we dropped supplies at should still be there. They should have radio comms and a map.”
“We don’t need a map,” Mason grumbled.
Arina scoffed, “Yeah, because your directions were so sound they led us straight to the Black-ops camp. That was a great idea.”
He huffed and crossed his arms over his chest like a petulant child, “And I suppose you know how to get there?”
Arina shrugged. “I’ve been out here four times in the past two years. They never change our training sites. I like to think that I know this place well enough.”
“Why didn’t you say that in the first place?”
“I tried. You refused to listen.”
He couldn’t argue with that, so he allowed the quiet to settle on them again. It wasn’t as thick this time. About an hour later, just as the sun was breaking through the clouds with rays of light purples and pinks and casting a golden sheen over the sand, Arina pulled up and parked between two other ambulances.
She looked over to see Mason asleep, and the devil on her shoulder would not allow her to go without doing something to get him back for all the hell she had been through in the past 24 hours. She reached into her medical pack and pulled out one of the “smelling salts.” The shape was the same as one of the salt packets one would find in a fast-food restaurant, only this one was full of concentrated ammonia.
She broke it and waved it under his nose.
He came out of his dead slumber with a jump and a scream. By the time he realized what happened, she was already out of the vehicle, standing in front of it on her tiptoes, stretching her arms over her head and raising her face to the morning sun, a small grin lighting up her countenance.
He could tell from the rattling breaths and wheezes coming from her slight frame that she was trying to hold in her giggles. He glared at her and readied a reprimand but stopped when he realized where they were. Somehow – someway, while he slept for those few hours, Specialist Curtis had found her way back to the clamshell without having to stop at the promised allied site.
As if sensing his pending questions and disgust, she opened her eyes and allowed her grin to turn into a real smile. Patting his shoulder, she said, “Once we got closer to the other site, and the sky started to get lighter, I was able to recognize landmarks. It wasn’t that hard to get back after that.”
“Landmarks?” He asked with a raised eyebrow.
She shrugged. “What? They exist in the desert too.”
She took his silence as acceptance and went to grab her gear and the dispatch book. When she came back out of the vehicle, Sergeant Mason was still standing in front of it with a funny look on his face. Tired and not wanting to be in his company any longer than she had to be, she said, “Well, are you coming or not? We still have to turn this stuff in.”
He shook his head, took a couple of steps, stopped and turned back to her. He studied her for a few moments making her want to squirm.
She didn’t like the feeling.
“If I cared at all what you thought,” she said, a small edge in her tone, “I would be asking if there was something on my face. As it stands, I don’t care, and given our current setting, I’m pretty sure that it’s safe to say there probably is something on my face.”
“You’re awfully snarky for someone balancing on a tightrope of possible disciplinary action,” he finally said with a small smile.
“Yeah, well,” she gave a tiny shrug, “I almost died on multiple occasions last night. The threat of an article fifteen has nothing on looking down the barrel of an M16 rifle. Besides, you said we weren’t going to bring this up. I think I’m pretty safe.” Her smile was as brilliant as it was cunning, and she startled when he huffed out a laugh. It was a sound she missed dearly. “Are you going to hold this over me forever?” He asked.
She gave a decisive nod. “Yep,” she said, popping the “p” at the end, “or for as long as I can anyway.”
He groaned but held out his hand somewhat grudgingly. “Fine, we’ll call it a truce until we get back home.”
She was tentative when she took it.
“Besides,” he said quietly, holding her hand a little longer than necessary, “I’d rather have you alive and snarky than dead because I couldn’t put away my pride and ask for some directions.”
His candor surprised her, but it was his unwavering stare that unnerved her.
Heaving a deep breath in, she shook the moment off and gave him a sly wink as she started walking again. “For the record,” she said when he caught back up to her, “I get my five when we get back. They’ll be sending me to NCO school at the same time as you. We’ll be on equal footing again.”
He squawked out an incredulous “What?” And she laughed so hard she started coughing again. It was good to banter with him again – even if it was only this once. She felt that she still had some small sliver of hope for their old friendship.