“Paging Raven Miller to the ICU.”
I knew who was asking for me; he was the only reason why a twenty-year-old nursing student would be paged like someone important. VA hospital in Biloxi Mississippi seemed like a nice place to work, especially for a small-town girl looking to upgrade her trade school degree. I knew I should be grateful for any position, but damn if the hours didn’t suck. With the ten-hour shifts, I felt like I practically lived there. But Nate Greyson, he made it worth it.
I happily ran up the three flights of stairs to the room that Nate had occupied for nearly six months. My long legs took multiple steps at a time. The idea of spending time with Nate always filled me with joy. I made sure to check my hair and make-up before pushing the call button. I needed to look like a professional, as opposed to someone who was getting paid to hang out with her best friend.
I was buzzed in and quickly ushered to Nate’s room by a very anxious lead nurse.
‘Was something wrong?’ I knew the forty-two-year-old former master sergeant had been forced to stop chemo a few weeks back when he suffered a stroke during treatment.
He turned to me, his dark blond facial hair obscuring the deep scarring on his face. He still had a port in his chest for antibiotics and pain medication but these days it was rarely used for anything more than saline.
“Hey, Raven.” Nate smiled at me as best he could with his disfigured face and light blue eyes. He had lost part of his jaw in an incident in Kandahar. His face had been rebuilt with bone implants and muscle grafts. For whatever reason, thinking about the incident caused migraine headaches. This was either due to the bone shrapnel lodged in his brain, or the late-stage blood cancer.
“You look good, man,” I said through a forced smile. “You look strong.”
“You always look good,” he said in a tired, scratchy voice. He’d been fighting for as long as I’d known him. Nate, he had the mind of a scholar, the heart of a poet and the soul of a warrior.
“Did you sneak out of bed again?” I asked, at the sight of his wrist restraints. With how sick he was, I could see no other reason to have him handcuffed to the railing. Even when he suffered from violent sleep seizures, raising the bed was enough to keep him secured.
“Sometimes a lost soul needs to find its way home,” he muttered in the same weak, pain-stricken tone. “Or maybe I was just looking for a place to smoke a blunt.” Nate smiled with a broken grin.
I knew he was in pain. “We need to talk to your wife about hospice and palliative care.”
“My mother,” he replied in a groan, “the divorce was finalized earlier this week. Gia no longer has medical power of attorney.”
“That’s good, I guess.” I’d met Gia when she was three months pregnant, with the child of Nate’s previous doctor.
Nate nodded. “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” He had been sterile their entire relationship; together for ten years, married for seven. “She always wanted a little girl,” his voice faded into a hoarse whisper, “we always wanted a little girl.”
I placed my hand upon his. “You have me. You’re cooler than my real dad ever was.”
My real father left when I was six and he certainly didn’t have an affinity for cannabis.
That got a smile. “Can you stay for a while?”
“Of course.” I stood up and worked on flushing his IV to start a saline drip. “I wish I could give you something for the pain.”
“You do,” Nate said motioning to a secret compartment between the mattress and the bed. “You give me peace.”
I reached over and pulled a vape pen from a space under his mattress. The find caused me to chuckle. I knew he had visitors from a local charity that supplied terminally ill veterans with CBD products. Sometimes he asked for gummies or other edibles but mostly oils and lotions to help with the muscle pain. “Did you bring enough to share with the class?”
Nate smiled. “I always do.”
I walked my fingers down his arm to his wrist. “Do you want to talk about the wrist restraints?” I freed his left arm, his dominant hand.
“Sure,” he said with a shrug. “Have you heard the legend of Kenneth Sugarland?”
“Can’t say that I have.” I took a seat by his side. Leaving his right hand restrained, I stroked his fingers, or what was left of them. He had a pinky, a partial ring finger, and a thumb. It was hard to tell what parts were left behind in the desert and what was lodged in the tissue of his arm or brain. Either way, Nate had little to no feeling in his hand. “Tell me the story, I like fairytales.”
“The life of Kenneth Sugarland was no fairytale.” Nate took a hit off his vape. “The boy was a soldier in Vietnam who served his country and came home in pieces.”
“Pieces? Are we talking mental or physical?”
“He murdered his wife in a drug-induced rage, before killing himself. But he had brain cancer at the time, so…” he took another hit.
“Yeah, life must have been tough before the legalization of medical marijuana.”
“He left behind a daughter and his grieving parents.”
“Interesting,” I muttered as I helped myself to some lotion. It was just enough of a ‘high’ to relive my tension headache. The story was a sad one, but not as unique as I had been expecting.
“He died when I was just a boy but his spirit wanders these halls. So, for whatever reason, I’ve been seeing him.”
“You’ve been seeing him?”
“I think he wants to take me someplace.”
“Wow,” I said as I massaged his hand. “Why do you think that is?
“Hell, if I know. It felt like a dream, but when I woke up, I was on the roof.”
And that explained the restraints. I made a mental note to google Kenneth Sugarland during my smoke break.
“The doctor told me I’m going blind. That part of my brain is just going to shut off if I don’t die soon.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. Stroking his face, I could tell he had a fever. “That really sucks.”
“Don’t fucking cry on me, soldier,” he said with fake seriousness.
I laughed, which of course made me cry. I truly couldn’t picture a future without him.
I stayed by Nate’s side talking about travel, hospital food, and the local news.
He’d been a ground pounder who moved up just enough over the course of his career to lead a squadron. He deployed all over the world, as a soldier, a leader, a hero. But all that amounted to was him being a man who was going to die alone from cancer.
Within an hour, he quickly got tired and drifted off to sleep. I made sure to examine his body for bedsores. He had a bad infection on his leg, back and shoulder. Certain wounds were caked over with dried blood. But it was beyond the point where his mind no longer cared.
Upon leaving the room, I told his primary nurse of my findings. “He has a bedsore that might be infected. Someone really needs to check on him on the hour.”
The small elderly nurse pulled me to the side. “Did he say anything about the roof?”
“The roof?” I had nearly forgotten. “He said something about a really vivid dream. Something about the ghost of a Vietnam veteran leading him up there.”
The nurse rolled her eyes. “Just as I suspected, the ramblings of a madman.”
I couldn’t help but be insulted on Nate’s behalf. “The ghost had a name; Kenneth Sugarland.”
The nurse laughed. “Does that even sound like a real name to you?”
“Nate is in need of antibiotics for his bedsores or at the very least a bath. The entire ICU staff leaves him alone like an unwanted dog.”
“Raven, sweetie, your heart is in the right place, but that dog is on his last legs.
“What can you do?” asked a voice that was not the nurse. It seemed to come from the air vents.
“What did you say?”
“I said your heart is in the right place. But as a medical professional you have to realize that our focus has to remain on the patients who we can actually save. Nate Greyson needs to be in hospice.”
“I-” He needed more than hospice. Nate needed compassion, love, and hope. I shook my head to avoid crying in front of her. “I’m going to the restroom.”
I went outside to the parking lot where I knew I could find the best wi-fi signal for my shitty obsolete iPhone. ‘Kenneth Sugarland,’ I typed in to the search bar. He died at the age of twenty-six after years of living as a prisoner of war. He left behind a five-year-old daughter, who was raised by his parents. Strangest part was, according to autopsy he had been dying of late stage cancer, self-medicating with a combination of illegal and prescription drugs. This led officials to the conclusion, Kenneth Sugarland was completely out of his mind when he butchered his young wife before cutting his own throat. “Wow.”
“He shouldn’t be alone,” said a male voice.
I turned to see a young blond man wearing what looked like dirty t-shirt and sweatpants. “Excuse me?” I assumed he was homeless, just looking for a handout.
But then he looked at me with his glowing sapphire blue eyes, “No one deserves to die alone.” The man took a long drag from what was clearly a joint.
“I don’t think you’re allowed to smoke out here.”
“Where I am, I can do whatever the fuck I want.”
“Are you Kenneth Sugarland?” I asked with a laugh. I assumed all that CBD lotion had gone straight to my brain.
“Am I that famous?” he asked. Turning towards me I could see a massive scar on the opposite side of his face. “Does that little device of yours say how I lost my eye?”
“No,” I said quietly, in case I was truly hallucinating.
“It was kinda like what happened to your friend, just taking over the course of two weeks. Can you imagine?” He gripped my throat, hard. His hands felt like ice; not even hold human flesh, he felt like he was made of actual water droplets frozen into spikes. “A chunk of God knows what, cutting in your skin. And then your meat down to the bone. You start to think about all the cows and chickens, who die every day,” he paused to kiss my cheek, gliding his sandpaper hands along my throat, “how lucky they are, to be dead before the butchering begins.”
Ken took smiled as he took a step back. He rolled his head, flexing his shoulders like an athlete. I could hear the sound of his flesh cracking along the wound in his neck, revealing his cut throat.
This couldn’t be real, I just had to keep telling myself that. “If you’re Kenneth Sugarland, tell me, why did you kill your wife?”
“Because she let me,” he said with a laugh. Blood trickled down his chest staining his shirt. He continued to laugh until he cried. “She just laid there and took it. You know why?”
“Because she loved you,” I blurted out. It felt like the right answer.
Kenneth was no longer laughing, instead, he looked at me unblinking. She was the best thing to ever happen to me.” At that moment he looked human.
“So, why’d you lead Nate Greyson to the roof?”
He smirked. “You’re bold for a little girl.”
“I’m not a little girl.”
Kenneth chuckled, and blew a cloud of white smoke in my face. “You remind me of my daughter, headstrong and brave. She was too good for this world.”
The article I read made no mention of the fate of his daughter, only that he had one. “Answer my question; why were you trying to kill Nate?”
The world went white, it was as if he had summoned a cloud of fog. “I can’t make anyone do anything they don’t want to do.” His eyes stared into my soul with an icy intensity. “War has collected so many lost souls; men, women. These proud warriors die with anger in their hearts and pain in their souls. But all it took was a vision of you, a girl he just met, to bring him back. I have to say I’m impressed and more than a little pissed off.”
“Well fuck you too!” I screamed.
“Then I realized: no one deserves to die alone.” He cupped my face, dragging his nails along my cheeks. “You will make a beautiful bride.”
I could feel a sharp pain as he faded away, leaving a single cut below my eye. The smoke smelled like lavender, lime, and cedar; it smelled like incense. The afternoon sun felt nice and combined with the lovely smell, it was hypnotic.
The white smoke seemed to form a human figure; a doll-like woman with long hair. even with her blurred features, she was undeniably beautiful.
“Hello,” I said stroking my hand through the figure. “What’s your name?”
The figure dispersed, then reformed. “Thuy, but my husband called me Lily.”
“You know me?” She sounded just the way I always imagined a Vietnam war bride to sound; soft, sweet, subservient.
“I know your husband brutally murdered you,” I said in a meek tone as if part of me didn’t want her to hear.
“To bring men comfort in their dying hours, it is what all women should aspire to.”
“Maybe in third world countries.”
“Think as you wish.” The smoke woman vanished into the dark night sky.
A rush of cold surrounded me. I knew it had not been night out when I first left the building. Looking at my phone, it was around midnight; I had been on break for hours. “What the fuck?”
I could have gone home; I should have, but I felt the need to check on Nate one last time. My card still worked and I easily got into the ICU after hours. The world seemed to be on mute, as I made my way to his room. “Nate?”
The room was dark, with the only light coming from the side window. Nate was crumpled in to the fetal position, sobbing.
“Hey, Nate? Talk to me buddy.”
He was no longer restrained, but his body was so limp he looked dead. “Hey, Raven.”
The front of his gown was covered in vomit. He could barely hold down food, so whatever he coughed up was mostly liquid and bile. “C-can I have some water?”
He had a cup of water with a straw. Upon removing the lid, I could see that it had once held liquid but had not been replenished for quite some time. “Wow, they really do treat you like a dog. I’ll refill your water and get you cleaned up.”
I was about to head to the supply closet when I heard the unmistakable sound of the doors locking. “I think the building went into lockdown.”
Nate turned his head to the window, looking out at the clear night sky. “I don’t hear any rain.”
“Maybe the bad weather is on the other side of the building?” I tested the sink, luckily there was still warm and cold water. “Just lay back, I’m going to get you cleaned up. When’s the last time your nurse changed you?” I helped him sit up, to get fully undressed.
He started to cough. “Fuck it’s cold in here.”
“Keep the blanket on, I’ll see what I can dig up.” There were some clean towels, blankets and washcloths.
“My mother called; she’s coming to visit next week. She’s working on having me transferred to a clinic up north.”
“She lives in Kansas, right? I heard it’s really beautiful there.”
“Wow, Missouri, even better,” I said, taking a seat by his side. “But you grew up in Kentucky, right?”
“God willing, I hope I can make it back there,” Nate said, as he sat up, crossing his arms over his chest, “to be buried near my grandparents and my old man.”
His words cut to my core. “I’m sure your mother will take good care of you.” With a flushable wipe, the kind used for sanitation, I cleaned off his neck and chest. I couldn’t help but marvel as I caressed his skin. Other than his chemo port, Nate’s body was no longer the body of a dying man; he had broad shoulders and a strong muscular chest. I paused for a moment, tracking the rhythm of his pulse, his breath.
Nate rested his head on my hand. “Sometimes, I feel like It’s you and me against the world.” His head fell limp, followed by his body until he was collapsed in my arms. “If I leave, promise you’ll visit me?”
I couldn’t even imagine what it feels like to be so sick. “I’ll visit you in Missouri. Maybe I’ll move there.” I rocked Nate in my arms, holding him close as I cried. “I’ll marry you and leave this fucked up world behind.” I’d meant to say ‘job,’ but ‘world’ felt right.
“We should get some sleep.” Nate reclined back, on the bed, allowing me to rest on my head on his chest. I could hear his heart, it sounded so strong. I stroked my fingers down his stomach. Nate had muscular abs that I knew had not been there a few hours ago. He was so beautiful. “Have you heard the joke about the four nuns?”
“I don’t know, my memory’s not what it used to be.” Nate’s smirk said otherwise.
“Well, the story goes; four nuns were at the gates of heaven but first Saint Peter tells them to confess their sins. The first nun says that during her time as a nurse while caring for the sick and infirm, she once gazed upon a dying man’s genitals. It wasn’t even sexual.” Unlike what was happening in Nate’s ICU bed. “So, Peter tells her to wash her eyes in the fountain of holy water and she can proceed to heaven.” I could feel the movement of his chest; his breath, his heart. “The next nun, she admitted touching a man’s cock. But only while caring for the ill, in service of the lord.” My hand seemed to move on its own, doing something I had only dreamt about.
“Oh, fuck,” he moaned, “that feels so good.
“Saint Peter told her to wash her hands and proceed into heaven. Then came the last two.”
“I think I remember this part.”
“One nun pushed past the other.” I moved my lips to Nate’s ear, whispering the way a lover would. “When Saint Peter asked, ‘What is the meaning of this?’ the nun replied, ‘I’m not washing my mouth after she washes her pussy.’”
Nate chuckled. “The version I heard in school had ‘ass’ as the punchline.”
I laughed, walking my fingers down his hips, between his legs. He had a large scar from when he took a bullet to the ‘upper thigh.’ He’d been only nineteen and his squadron didn’t let him live it down.
I gave it a kiss and a lick. Then I did something truly nasty. I felt so dirty. And not just because I was going down on my best friend: I never had a chance to thoroughly clean up all the vomit. Smoke started to seep in through the vents but Nate didn’t seem to notice. That, and the smoke wasn’t unpleasant. It was sweet; lavender and lime, it was Lily.
Nate was moaning, a soft sexy groan, “Please let me kiss you, Raven.”
I stopped what I was doing, letting his moist cock slap against his stomach. “Yes please.” I could feel the white smoke caressing my skin, coaxing my hands. I cupped his face, kissing his disfigured mouth. I could feel the metal pins in his jaw, the thick scar that cut through his bottom lip. I wanted him to hold me, to fuck me. No this was stupid! In my head, I was screaming. Then I felt his hand. The crippled hand that he had little to no use of; it was caressing my leg. I pulled away from the kiss ever so softly. “Nate?”
There were tears in his eyes as he spoke. “I-I can feel again.”
I kicked off my shoes then my underwear and we became one. One light one life, one soul. “I love you.”
My black hair fell over my shoulders, cascading down my chest like a mermaid. An odd sensation, given that just moments ago, my hair had been barely long enough to put in a ponytail.
Nate’s lips parted, taking a breath. “In another life, you would have been mine.”
“I am yours now and forever.” I heard the words coming out of my lips. “I’d die for you.” But it was not my voice. “Are you Nate or Kenneth?”
There was silence. The smoke was everywhere. All around me I heard laughter.
“Does it matter?” the reply came from a chorus of voices. Depressed souls who died lonely, angry. They had me on strings like a puppet.
No, it was like a Barbie doll being placed on top of a Ken doll to fuck. And the smoke was the little children laughing at their sick little game. I was his gift, the sacrifice that would bond Nate’s soul to this horrid place.
“It matters.” I needed to plead my case or I wasn’t walking out of that room alive. “Nate,” I said softly as I walked my fingers down his chest. “Do you remember when we first met?”
He closed his eyes and snickered. “Yeah, you were getting bullied by that fucktard of a supervisor. The same shithead that knocked up my wife.”
“You do remember.” I met Nate during my third week of employment. I was sent to clean the floors in the ICU while my supervisor took an extended lunch break. Ten minutes in, I found him fucking a hot brunette in his office. That slut was Gia Greyson, who’d been carrying on the affair ever since her husband started chemo. I screamed and the first person on the scene was Nate. He’d always suspected something. Nate got into a fight with the asshole. Grant Reed, that was his name. Nate broke that fucker’s nose. I think he even fractured his eye socket. All while suffering from the effects of chemo. Nate had pneumonia and a weak heart, so when the police arrived, I was allowed to take him someplace safe.
“We snuck off to the chapel to watch shitty movies.”
“Retro movies; Mad Max, Forrest Gump, Dances with wolves; all the great stories of heroes. Tales of the warrior spirit. I always admired your spirit.” Although we were both barely moving, I knew I was going to orgasm off his cock. “Do you remember what you said to me? We all have our warrior spirit.”
“Nah, I think I said, if someone like me can make it to Master Sergeant, someone like you will make one hell of a nurse. Or a doctor or whatever the fuck you want to be.”
I kissed his lips, looking into his eyes. There was no doubt in my mind, this was the real Nate. “I wanted to fall in love with you from the first moment I saw you.”
The room started to violently shake. I screamed as I felt dust from the ceiling falling on to my face.
Nate put his arms around me. “I’ll keep you safe.”
I had no doubt. The ICU bed was solid, stable. We were nearly on the top floor; even if the ceiling collapsed, we would survive the debris. And then a tree burst through the wall.
I screamed again, burying my face in Nate’s shoulder.
“We need to flip the bed on its side!” Nate shouted over the roar of the storm. “Use it as shelter!”
“What if the floor gives out?”
“Floor’s not going to give,” he said calmly. “But if we fall out the side of the building, that’s a different story.”
“Okay.” I was sobbing.
“Raven, kid, you’re not going to die here.” Nate rolled the bed it the direction opposite the tree. This meant he needed to roll on top of me.
For a moment I savored the warmth of his naked body before the bed fell to the side with a crash. I expected to hit my head, but Nate cradled me in his arms, so all I could feel was him. With our bodies shielded by the bed, we at least were sheltered from the roaring wind.
That gave me peace for all of five seconds.
There was a crash. Nate pulled me close, holding my head to his chest. I could hear and clang and bang or metal. I’d never been in a warzone but I imagined it was at least the same level of fear and intensity. Then there was silence. Nate’s hands were trembling.
“Raven,” Nate’s voice gurgled. “You okay?”
His cock was still inside me. I didn’t know if he ever got to finish but part of me wanted him to. I could still feel his breath. I could feel his heart. And then I saw the blood.
Somehow a piece of metal, what I would later learn was a car door, cut through the bed, mattress finally embedding itself in Nate’s lung. Blood trickled from his lips, on to my face, as he gazed into my eyes. “Nate, baby?”
My best friend smiled, revealing a mouth full of blood. “Did you just call me baby?”
I smiled though uncontrollable tears. “I guess I did.” I looked at his throat and laughed. With every word, every breath, I could see blood bubbling through the torn muscles.
“Yes, my darling?” Nate’s disfigured smile drooped ever so slightly. The muscles in his face were becoming paralyzed. Every breath was a struggle.
I dared not look at his body. From where my hand rested, I could feel his ribs, torn skin, and so much blood. “Did you finish.”
Nate chuckled, a deep, jovial laugh. “Fuck yeah I finished.” He swallowed hard, and slowly blinked his eyes. “You can tell my ex-wife I died doing what I love.”
“Came and went?”
“Yeah.” Nate forced out one last smile. “Will you hold me?”
“Of course, baby.” I’d never watched someone die. I hoped I would never have to.
Nate started to violently convulse. His eyes blinked rapidly, coming to rest in an open position. The light in his eyes was noticeably gone.
“And yet you’re still here,” said a disappointed voice, it was Kenneth Sugarland. “You’re really going to let him go through this alone?”
I put arms around Nate’s body. He still felt warm. “Go away!”
“I can’t do that, sweetie.” Kenneth knelt down, his transparent form passing through the bed, to reach Nate’s body.
I was screaming, sobbing.
“I still can’t believe you would allow your friend to endure this pain all alone.”
“He’s not alone!”
“Nate Greyson will be leaving this world, scared and abandoned.”
“You’re a fucking liar! Nate was never afraid, not of death not of you!” tears choked my throat.
“Well, let’s see if an eternity as a foot-soldier changes that.” He reached his transparent hand into Nate’s back. With a sickening crunch, he pulled out a bloody mass of flesh, bone, and…energy?
Nate’s body went cold in my arms. His skin seemed to become gray in a matter of moments and his eyes, oh God his eyes. What was once blue was now completely black, as if someone gouged them from his face. When I finally was able to pull myself away from Nate’s corpse. Kenneth was gone but so was my best friend.
A gentle female voice spoke from behind me, “It’s not too late.” I could feel a gentle hand pressed upon my shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Lilly.” The ghosts, they couldn’t make me kill myself. But apparently, they could make it take forever for the firefighters to reach the ICU. Rolling Nate’s body, I could see a massive bruise where Kenneth had removed his soul. To the naked eye, it looked like part of the shrapnel injury.
I held him until the fire department arrived. When I was taken out of the room on a stretcher, I finally got a look at the metal door that took Nate’s life. The massive piece would have taken us both if Nate hadn’t moved our entwined bodies two feet to the left. Even in death, he’d never been afraid. I didn’t deserve someone like Nate as a friend.
I sobbed hysterically until I was given an IV drip of a sedative. I awoke in a hospital bed. I recognized it as the local public hospital.
Standing in the corner of the room was a middle-aged woman with long black hair her eyes hidden behind sunglasses. “Raven Miller?”
“Yes, that’s me,” I answered with a hesitant nod.
“I’m a friend of Nate Greyson. I heard you were the last person to see him alive.”
“I guess so.” Clearly, she wasn’t a cop but I was unsure of the purpose of the clipboard.
“What was your relationship.”
“He was my friend.”
She lowered her glasses revealing her sapphire-blue eyes. “Seemed like more than that.”
The sight of her eyes brought about a realization. “I think I’ve seen you before.” Nate did not get many visitors. “Are you his cannabis provider?”
“I work with many veterans on the transplant list, from this area.”
“Really?” I felt that the answer made sense. “What was he on the list for?”
During the early stages of his diagnosis, there was an attempt to get him a bone marrow transplant. But sadly, as his illness progressed that option was removed. Such a sad story, given that his career as a mechanic likely contributed to the severity of his illness.”
“He told me he was a ground pounder.”
“Nate was on the front lines more often than not,” she said with a shrug, “probably felt like it was been his chosen profession.”
Again, her answer rang true. “I never got your name.”
“Abigail, but my friends call me Annie.”
“What did Nate call you?”
“He used my ‘street name’, all my clients do,” she said with a chuckle.
“What’s your street name?”
“My dad used to call me, ‘Annie-May.’ So, when I started my work, anime was just coming into style so I went with it.”
“Your name is Anime? That’s cute.” I could see why she was Nate’s friend. “What exactly do you do for a living?”
“I do good things for good people and bad things to bad people. It’s been my life’s work. I was hoping you’d join me.”
“I just met you.” Now this felt creepy. “Is this because I hung out with Nate?”
“I can feel your aura,” she said with a laugh. “But seriously, after Nate got diagnosed as terminal, he lost a lot of his friends. Poor guy, just cut himself off from the world,” she took a step closer, “except for you. He saw something special in you.” She took a seat on my bed, careful not to sit on my legs. “And so, do I.”
We talked for a while about her work and her travels. Although she never enlisted, herself, she devoted her life to the plight of veterans. Although she primarily lived out of a trailer, touring the southern united states, she also traveled to parts of Asia. She worked with missionaries, government agents and other international organizations. Annie was quirky and fun, like your favorite aunt at a family reunion. Then I had to go and ask the question. “Why veterans? What inspired you?”
Her answer shook me to the core. “My father, Staff Sergeant Kenneth Sugarland.” She showed me a tattoo on her arm; she had his stripes where they would be on a uniform, and above that, an image of the purple heart medal.
“Wow.” I was frozen in place, unable to move or speak.
“So, are you in? First stop once I get you out of here will be Dr. Reed and his little whore,” Annie spoke casually as if this line of thinking was perfectly normal.
I forced a chuckle as I crossed my arms over my chest. “Why do I feel like I’d be making a deal with the devil?” Or his daughter.
“Well, the devil was just an angel who was forced to fall.” She reached out her hand. “Take a walk with me?”
“Sure, I guess.” I could feel an IV attached to my arm, but my limbs seemed to otherwise work as normal.
I let Annie detach my IV since it didn’t appear to be administering any medication. Walking down the hallway, I heard people arguing. In the room on my left, a man was cursing, crying. On my right, a woman was screaming. My head throbbed as the sound engulfed me like a warzone. “Are we in the VA?”
“Nope, just your run-of-the-mill public hospital,” she said as we headed to the exit, “a lovely slice of heaven and hell.”
I wanted to run, cry, scream, but instead, I kept walking. When we reached the exit, my hand pressed against the door. I was truly about to leave the hospital with this lunatic while wearing nothing more than a gown and underwear. “Say something about Nate.” I needed to picture the man who reminded me of everything good in this world.
Annie leaned in close, whispering my ear. “Nate watched his father die of lung cancer when he was just a boy. It’s why he never smoked, drank or did anything naughty: until he met me. It was also why he enlisted right of high school; there was no money for college, and he needed to support his mother. Along the way, he married his high school sweetheart, a delightful little angel who said all the right things. When in actuality all she wanted was a free ride until she could find something better.”
“Impressive.” I could feel Nate’s presence, his energy was all around me. “Nate Greyson died for me. He died making love to me.”
“He chose you.” Annie slammed the door open, setting off the fire alarm. “Now run!”
And that’s how I found myself standing over the corpse of Gia Greyson and Dr. Reed.
Nate didn’t get me pregnant, but I still have the baby that should have been his.