Our story continues.
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The cries and chattering from the wailers stops. Caroline rolls onto her back and lets out a scream that comes from some place so deep inside of her that I don’t know if she realizes that place even exists. She grabs for her arm, but I stop her. I reach into my bag and pull out an old shirt. I tie it tight near her shoulder — a tourniquet. Thanks, Boy Scouts.
Caroline starts to stand, and I help her to her feet. The burning wailers are giving off enough heat to make us sweat. I pull a canteen off the side of my pack . It’s heavy with water. I pour enough on each of the creatures to give us space to access the stairs.
Caroline lets her arm hang limp at her side. She whimpers. I drape her good arm over my neck and slip a hand around her waist. We move up the stairs.
“Hang on,” I say. “We’ll can get you a proper bandage.”
Back in the doctor’s office I lay her on the couch in the waiting room and go dig through bins and drawers until I find gauze, cotton and a sling. I grab more than I need. I’ll put the extra in my pack to take back to the camp.
Caroline is sleeping, and I roll her gently to her side. She’s not more than 17, one of those girls who’s all attitude. Completely unaware that all the boys have a crush on her. I move a messy blonde ponytail out of the way of the makeshift bandage that I put on moments ago. Blood rushes back to the gash in her arm and I push handfuls of cotton hard against the wound. I wrap it tight with the gauze. Caroline pulls her arm away out of instinct but doesn’t wake.
I secure the gauze, drape her arm across her chest, and will let her sleep. We are safe here. I’ve locked the entrance. There are enough dead wailers in the stairwell to keep any others away. Besides, the couch in the doctor’s personal office will sleep better than anything I could find back at camp.
I walk over to the window and look back out at Dallas. The fires. The river that’s overrun its banks. The buildings that were there a few weeks ago, but are either gone or split in half. My mind starts rebuilding all of it, putting the pieces back together, until what I see is the city I moved to just months earlier.
Blue skies replace the smoke and clouds that have been ever-present. Warm sun on my cheek replaces the reality of bitter winds. Sounds of traffic fill what was a silent doctor’s office just moments ago.
I see me on the sidewalk 15 stories below. I’ve just exited Union Station, my train depositing me at the edge of downtown, putting me in Dallas for the first time in 15 years. I have a pack over one shoulder and am dragging a rolling bag behind me. It’s the middle of the day and this part of downtown is mostly empty except for a few vacationers looking for the street where Kennedy was killed.
I repeat the address of my new apartment over and over again in my head. I’ve decided to walk there to get a feel for downtown and the city and almost immediately regret that decision. Even in the spring, Texas gets hot. It’s more than a few blocks to my new place, and by the time I get there my back is covered in sweat. My hair sticks to the back of my neck. I need a shower and new clothes, but everything I own that’s not in the rolling bag won’t be getting here for at least a couple of days. At that moment it’s on the back of a truck coming from my place out in California, so I’m stuck sitting under a fan in the living room of my new place stripped down to my underwear and letting the cool breeze cause me to nearly shiver.
Back in front of this window, I ask God to push the cosmic rewind button. To put me back under that fan shivering in my underwear.
Caroline stirs and calls my name. I step away from the window and back into a darker and cooler reality.
“Mack?” she says again as I approach.
“Yeah,” I tell her and touch her shoulder. She turns her head.
“We need to get back to camp.”
I shake no. “Not tonight,” I drop to a knee in front of her. “Whatever wailers that your little firecrackers didn’t kill are still out there and probably close by. We are better off here for the night. We’ll go back to camp in the morning.”
Blood has soaked the cotton and is starting to come through the gauze. I grab the extra cotton and gauze from my pack and rewrap the wound. A tear drops off Caroline’s cheek and wets the gauze. I look up and she wipes another tear from her eye.
“This hurts, Mack.”
“I know it does. Let me see if I can find something for that.”
I dig through the cabinet that Caroline broke into earlier and find some of that doctor-level aspirin. I bring her a couple of tablets and the canteen from my pack. I tell her that this will help her sleep as she swallows both pills. She stretches out on the couch, and I leave her for the night.
I take my pack with me into the doctor’s personal office and lean it against the arm of the couch. I collapse onto the cushions and pull both boots off. I haven’t been in just socks in days, and I hear my feet thanking me for the opportunity to suck some real oxygen.
I take long and deep breaths, and my vision begins to fade. My body starts to fight off the deep and restful sleep that it needs, and I wrestle with my instincts. “Let it come,” I’m telling my brain. “Let it come.”
I focus on the ceiling fan above me to keep my mind occupied and think about nothing but sleep.