The first bullet sliced clear through his breakfast sandwich. Ham, eggs, and the pathetic remains of a mildly stale biscuit all splattered against the particleboard wall. Alistair was in grief, staring at what should have been inside his famished lips but instead mocked him in pieces on the floor. When the second bullet ricocheted near his head, the idiot finally thought to take cover.
Plastic trays erupted through the air of the makeshift mess, soldiers hurling themselves to the broken floor while bullets whizzed through what had been a boring four-month tour of duty. “Shhiner!” Alistair cried, his head tucked into his lap. Whoever was firing at them had awful aim. Aside from the murder of his beloved breakfast which even had cheese — real cheese, unlike that orange plastic the Americans kept insisting upon — the rest of their bullets seemed to be aimed too high.
Shrapnel in the form of wood splinters and mushroomed bullets pinged upon the floor. One of the white-hot bits bounced against the tray he held over his head, Alistair flinching at the sound and smell of melting plastic. Curiosity overruled common sense and he pulled his makeshift helmet down to get a look. His finger drew close, the pitted and warped metal still red as anger.
He flung both tray and potential burn through the air, Alistair turning to catch the wide eyes of Second-Lieutenant Barry. He had a last name, one of those solid, cowboy and steak American ones, but Alistair preferred Barry.
“What’s going on?” Alistair shouted at the man. Which was when he realized the plink, and plank, and boom of bullets had stopped. Feeling rather sheepish, despite having a rain of death ripping through the mess tent, he dropped the hands off his ears and began to rise.
LT Barry shook his head fast, the whites of his eyes even more dramatic against the mahogany shade of his skin. Guy looked like he walked in on a ghost getting creepy with his grandma. “No idea, Sir,” he shouted, his empty hands reaching around as if a gun should be there.
They did have guns locked up in the armory cabinet way on the other side of the compound. They didn’t carry them around while sitting down to a once-in-a-year breakfast sandwich because this was supposed to be a humanitarian mission. Relief aid, now with bullets!
Slapping his hands together, Alistair turned towards the others and shouted, “Is everyone all right?”
“Ye-yes,” a couple voices rolled out.
“Sergeant Tibbs took some shrapnel to the neck, Sir,” another man called, drawing both Alistair and Barry to the injured. Sergeant Tibbs had her hand clamped to the side of her throat, blood gurgling from where her skin pressed tight.
“Nothin’ but a flesh wound,” she insisted, her breath bursting like hot air bubbles as she fought through the pain.
“Uh huh,” Alistair said with an eye roll. He bent over and hauled Tibbs up to her feet. “And those are the first to get filled with worms.”
“Captain?” Barry gasped.
Right, Alistair was the highest rank in the mutilated mess. Great. He had to make decisions. “Check in with the colonel,” he ordered the lieutenant while getting Tibbs’ hand over his shoulder. “Make sure whoever was firing at us, whatever was trying to kill us, is gone. Don’t want to turn my back on ’em just to have my arse filled with lead.”
“Yes, Sir,” Barry saluted. Every time someone did that to Alistair his gut squirmed. He didn’t seem worth the energy.
“I’m gonna take her to the doc, get her fixed up,” Alistair said.
“It’s okay, Sir,” Tibbs gasped, more blood dribbling from her wound, “I can walk.”
“I know, but I need you to watch my butt as we cross to the med unit. Last thing I need is losing the ability to sit down. It’d kill all my weekend plans,” he tried to assure the woman bleeding down his khaki shirt. Alistair hooked another assuring hand to her waist and together they inched towards the back of the tent. He figured if the bullets came from the north, then it seemed unlikely the bad guys were hiding in the south.
Blinding sun shattered their sight as Alistair shoved open the door with his foot. He tried to blink away the burn in his eyes to get a good look at his surroundings, but there didn’t seem to be much point. Dead scrub brush to the left, dead scrub brush to the right. In the distance were a few pocked mountains he’d guess were covered in dead scrub brush. It was not a land the people who took pictures for calendars were gonna clammer for.
A dozen of the US army guys came rushing past, now armed. They didn’t glance once at the complicated one in their midst, their eyes of steel focused on the horizon. First time Alistair arrived on site with this crew, he thought they were all robots. Okay, not literally, but he’d pretend sometimes when eating alone or killing time without the serious ones glancing his way.
“Oh, okay,” his body involuntarily slid away from the hot blood dripping against his skin. “Let’s get there quicker if we can. Don’t want you to have a wicked scar or nothing.”
Tibbs snorted, “I’ve got worse.”
His head swiveled out to the horizon, dust rising from the war-torn landscape as a truck peeled out into the wastelands. “Don’t we all,” he whispered.
They had to get through the main office, which was actual walls and a ceiling for the time being. A few of the army clerks were sitting bolt upright at their desks, running calculations and shouting numbers back and forth. Sounded like they were trying to pursue whoever attacked them with a drone, but something was messing with its navigation.
Alistair kept shuffling deeper, following the winding yellow line, when a uniform that was always pressed and ready for action stepped in front of him. “Colonel Stewart, Sir!” he moved to salute, before realizing his hands were full of an injured woman. “Uh…” Alistair dipped his head down and knocked his forehead into the arm he drooped over her shoulder.
“Captain,” Stewart blinked in surprise. “What are you doing here?”
“Was in the mess, where Tibbs was injured. Sir, what’s happening?”
“What we’re trying to figure out.” Colonel Stewart, despite his age, still looked like he could pull off skinny jeans if he had half a mind. The fifty plus years kept him lean, but not hungry, if that made any sense. He pointed towards the mass of number jockeys, all peeling out calculations as fast as possible.
“Strangest thing is,” he cupped a hand to his belt in thought, “we’re not getting any reports of fatalities. Very few injuries too. You’re the first,” the colonel turned to Tibbs who grimaced as if she should be honored.
“Well,” Alistair shrugged, “maybe they’re just awful shots. Kids who swiped a gun and went on a joy ride out into the middle of nowhere. Why would rebels attack a vaccination tent?”
“Why indeed?” Stewart mused before turning to the man hanging tight to an oozing Tibbs. “Get her to the doctor. He’s back in his rooms as usual.”
Alistair nodded and resumed the march down the thick yellow line on his way to the Wizard. While the med unit was normally little more than a few tents to get you stable until they’d be able to ship you elsewhere, the vaccination unit was built. Four rooms, one for waiting in, two to hold the patients, and a greater back one for the doc to hide out in. He was never around after hours, not even for movie night. And they finally got in something other than Paul Blart.
“Ya still with me?” Alistair asked while guiding her through the same waiting rooms dozens of kids sat in for a shot to the arm.
“No, I left an hour ago,” Tibbs muttered.
“I see how it is,” he kept on, coming to the final room. The few lights up front blazed, but the ones in the back partial office were dead. Maybe doc was trying to catch a nap before hell broke loose? “Kiss the ass of the army,” Alistair said while helping to lower the injured woman to a rolling desk chair, “but talk smack to the Warden in the room.”
“You’re not my superior,” Tibbs responded, gasping in a breath.
He picked off her fingers and said, “Let’s take a look.” While exposing the shards of wood and ripped plastic that cut through Tibbs’ skin, Alistair called, “Hey doc, got a patient for ya!”
“How bad is it?” Tibbs closed her eyes, her hands flexing on her knees. She seemed to be prepared for the worst.
“A couple band-aids and some Tylenol, if I know the army,” he assured her. Alistair’s fingers itched to yank the splinter out, but was that smart? He remembered his few health teachers all but hurling him to the track by his ear. Running laps seemed a better use of the boy’s time to learning anatomy.
“Doc?” Alistair turned away from Tibbs. “You awake?” Nothing stirred from the blackened depths of the back office. Sighing, Alistair unwound some gauze and placed it in Tibbs’ fingers. “In case it gets worse,” he said before walking towards a no doubt snoozing doctor.
The man was exactly what you expected to find in a cartoon doctor. Squat, troll-like face, with white hair that frizzed out from the back of his head, and a bald plate big enough to hold a full brunch. He was as exciting as a summer heat rash, and as pleasant as that grinding sound a drive shaft makes when churning apart gravel.
Alistair stumbled around a few files spilled over the ground, his eyes trying to peer through the shadows. “Doc?” he called once more to what looked like a lumpy sack with its head curled up on the desk. “Got a patient. A real one with shrapnel in her neck.”
His fingers fumbled for a light switch, revealing even more of a mess smeared over the desk. Files were ransacked apart, the med laptop tumbled to the ground. He knew the Doc wasn’t neat, but this nearly put Alistair’s teenage days to shame.
Gripping onto the man’s unresponsive shoulders, Alistair laughed, “How in the funk did you sleep through that? We were getting shot at out there and…” As he yanked, the Doc’s head flopped back in the chair. The partially milky eyes were wide open, his tongue lolling free like a dead cow’s. All Alistair could stare at was a perfect round hole burrowed directly into the doc’s forehead.
“Seems we got a fatality after all,” he coughed, itching to wipe the dead man off his hands. Clacking his jaws, he stepped back into the light. As he eyed up Tibbs, who was already dressing her own wound, Alistair gasped, “Who would want to kill a doctor?”