Pebbles In The Path (33.3)

This story segment contains blood, infliction of mild pain and descriptions of medical procedures and injuries. If you enjoy the story, please click here to vote.

Benghu — Chanda General School

Dr. Agrawal produced a handkerchief from her pocket and presented it to her pupil.

“Bite down on this and try to keep steady, Elena.”

Elena looked at the rag and at her with wide-open, fearful eyes; Dr. Agrawal couldn’t blame her for it. They were completely short on drugs and did not even have as much as a drink of brandy available to soothe Elena. Her upper arm had absorbed a pistol shot from the side, and the Doctor had to extract the remains of the bullet. Both of them had performed this procedure several times on others; but never on Elena herself of course.

“I understand it hurts, but you know we can’t leave it there.”

“Yes. I know. It’s silly isn’t it? I ran out into the field, got shot; and I’m more anxious about a little visit to the doctor for this bullet, than I was about all of that.” Elena said.

“That’s adrenaline for you.” Dr. Agrawal smiled. It wasn’t silly; it was human.

With her good hand, Elena took the handkerchief, and stuffed it into her mouth.

“I’ll try to be ginger and quick.” Dr. Agrawal said.

She sat beside Elena, atop a teacher’s desk in one of the auxiliary building’s lower classrooms. There was a massive hole behind them, punched into the wall through relentless shelling — a quality desirable and convenient at the moment. It allowed the Doctor to turn her head and see out to the field where her troops were evacuating.

From her coat, the doctor withdrew a pair of scissors and cut Elena’s sleeve.

She saw the bullet wound, biting into the deltoid. Blood still trickled from it.

“I’m going to clean it.” Dr. Agrawal said. She raised a canteen of collected rainwater in front of Elena’s face so that the girl could see it. She touched the canteen on her nose so that Elena could feel the temperature, and sloshed it so she knew the volume more or less.

Elena met her eyes and nodded her head in acknowledgment.

“It’s cold. Is that ok, Elena?” Dr. Agrawal warned.

Elena nodded again, closing her eyes and biting down on the rag.

Dr. Agrawal tipped the contents over the wound. Elena almost jumped forward.

“I’m going to cut a little. Please try to stay still. It will hurt less than if I try to get the tweezers into the wound without an incision.” Dr. Agrawal said in a gentle voice.

Elena nodded her head, her jaw quivering.

The Doctor set aside her scissors and canteen. As quickly and carefully as possible, she laid a scalpel on the wound and made a precise incision to reveal the affected area as a whole. Elena bowed her head, squeezing on her leg with her good hand to cope with the pain.

“Are you ok? I’m extracting it now.” Setting down the bloody scalpel, Dr. Agrawal withdrew her forceps, spread the wound a bit, and then pulled the bullet from Elena’s arm using a blunt-ended, long pair of tweezers. She dropped the bullet on the floor.

“It’s out. You will be ok.” Dr. Agrawal said. She had this kind of tone with all of her patients, regardless of their knowledge of the procedure. Even though Elena knew everything that would happen and in the order it would happen, the lack of anesthetic, the bloody nature of the procedure, it would all throw her emotions into chaos. An affirming, gentle word, warnings at every step; making her feel included, acknowledged, and safe.

This did not just work with children. Adults liked to be treated this way as well.

Breathing heavily, eyes tearing up, Elena endured as the wound was sealed, cleaned again, and finally dressed. Doctor Agrawal procured a medical sling to keep Elena’s arm set in place. She urged Elena to stand up from the desk; her patient and pupil withdrew the rag from her mouth, set it on the table, and stood up. She bowed her head to her.

“Thanks.” She said. Her voice was still trembling a little from the pain and anxiety.

“I should thank you, for being so brave.” Dr. Agrawal replied.

Elena chest rose and fell with heavy, calming breaths. She sighed audibly.

“During the Knyskna defense, there was one point where we assaulted a camp in the woods. That was when I met Leander, and Bonde. We got stuck fighting some fierce Nochtish soldiers and even a vehicle. Leander was visibly in anarchy; Bonde was in control the whole time. I was afraid, and I didn’t know what to do, but I tried to at least get a grip.”

She turned her head to stare out into the field, perhaps hoping to see them. Leander, Bonde and Sharna had volunteered for body duty. Though Leander had taken some brutal hits to the head, he insisted on being allowed to leave and would not have it any other way. He always claimed to be okay, to be able to go on; he always seemed energetic enough that everyone trusted him. They let him go on, even as they worried about him.

“Leander did a crazy thing later. He took an entrenching tool and rushed out and killed a few men with it. He didn’t know it, but that saved us. It’s been in my head for a while. I wondered whether Leander could do that because he was Leander, or whether he plotted it, whether he was wicked. When it came down to it, could I do it too? But I didn’t think about that today, when I did something similar. I didn’t think about anything. I just saw an opportunity, and I threw my body into it like it was disposable. I killed a few men; and maybe I saved more.”

Dr. Agrawal raised her hand to stop the story. “You’re quitting medical, aren’t you?”

Elena smiled, and bowed her head. She glanced off the side again.

“Back then I thought it was the only thing I could do.” She said wistfully.

Dr. Agrawal nodded. She took a few steps toward Elena, laid her hands gently on her shoulders, and looked into her eyes, forehead to forehead, with a smile. It was the kind of smile she never thought she’d have for someone again, and the kind of words she did not think she would be able to say. But today, had changed a lot of paradigms for her.

“Listen: you can fight this war and make a perfectly fine doctor someday.”

In Elena’s eyes, she thought she saw that little girl from so many years ago, conflicted about killing, and war, and wondering what she could offer to the world to end the strife. In those eyes she also saw the person standing across from that child: she saw herself.

“Everyone in this army kills men, has killed men, and will kill men. But we don’t do it just to do it. We are trying to build something to replace this mess. It might seem a twisted moral, but we’re not gods or spirits. This is all we can do with our situation, Elena.”

In the past, she would have felt foolish saying that. She would have felt like a hypocrite — a self-proclaimed doctor who had killed and maimed and poisoned and done terrible things in her past, saying that there was a future for someone with bloodied hands. Saying that those hands were not rusty knives; thinking that they could be gentle. Her hands–

And Elena’s good hand, suddenly circling around her back and embracing her kindly.

She would have felt foolish, because she was being foolish. She had been foolish about herself this whole time. These wayward children of this war helped her to see that.

Leander, and Elena, and the patients in this hospital, could see gentleness and worth in her. So she had no reason to be reluctant; and they had no reason to be reluctant either.

“Thank you, Dr. Agrawal. Perhaps someday, then, I will be a proper student.” Elena said.

Dr. Agrawal nodded her head. “You’ve been an incomparable student.”

One convoy departed, and now there was only the tense wait for it to return.

Walking with a crutch, her head swimming a little from the morphine, she approached the the Auxiliary building. Her hip didn’t hurt anymore, thanks to the good doctor. She crossed through the threshold and walked over bits of rubble without much trouble.

Aarya waited outside a little room for a few moments, thinking of what to say, before she finally stepped through the open doorway. She decided she would just speak to them from the heart and hope that they understood. There was a hole in the back, and several people inside she did not immediately recognize; a younger man, with light brown skin and dark, messy hair, and a bandage around his head; a tall, plump, long-haired woman with rich brown skin, both standing at ease with their long rifles resting on the wall.

She then easily found the two soldiers she recognized; the red-headed, skinny young woman, her arm in a sling, and the black-skinned man with the shaved head.

All of them looked her way curiously. Aarya felt a touch intimidated by their presence.

She walked in front of the Umma soldier and bowed her head to him. She recognized him as the one who had been left in charge of the defense of the supply depot.

“Sir, thank you, and your troops, for protecting the children, and my fiance.”

“Oh, it’s nothing, please, no need to thank us.” He raised his hands a bit defensively.

Aarya turned her head, acknowledging the other soldiers. Everyone briefly introduced themselves to her: Bonde, Elena, Sharna and Leander. Each name brought a smile to her face. They all looked so young, maybe even younger than her; save the big woman. Yet they had stood and fought against these terrible odds, and performed so heroically.

“Without all of you, these children would have had no future.” Aarya said. “And neither would I. I’m sorry that I could not do more to help; and that I actively caused trouble for you at one point. Darshan got hurt because of me. And I could’ve caused one of you–”

“It’s perfectly fine. You didn’t just run for yourself.” Bonde interrupted. “Darshan told us that there was a child missing. In the moment, we might have been irritated, but after everything is said and done you had all the reason in the world to run out like that.”

Aarya had expected a reprimand. She felt almost giddy with joy at their replies; perhaps it was the morphine. But there was a dawning of powerful realization. These soldiers were not harsh or cynical people. They were kind and they empathized, they were nothing like she had imagined. She had gotten a skewed image of them, she thought. All of her life she had thought the soldiers of the SDS to be creatures far apart from her.

Elena, Bonde, Sharna, Leander; if there were soldiers that were this considerate and understanding, then certainly, Naya could still be her good old self among their number.

“All of the children send their thanks. They were evacuated quickly; I stayed behind to thank you, and to see after Darshan. He is resting. We will be traveling away soon, hopefully to meet back with the children and keep them from making any more trouble.”

“Best wishes for his health.” Elena said. “He looked shaken up in the fight.”

“He will be alright. He is fatigued, perhaps a bit ill. He was caring for sick children all this time and then spent a lot of time out in the rain, and then hurt and exhausted himself.”

“A quick way to get oneself bedridden.” Sharna said, grinning a little.

Aarya flushed slightly. All of them had been fighting and soaking in the rain, taking bullets; she and her fiance had hardly experienced anything of the war they had so fiercely fought all of this time. Her problems felt so small beside theirs. But they still held their heads up high. She knew that they did not judge her. They treated her as an equal.

She bowed her head again. “Thank you all so much. I truly mean it.”

Everyone in the room grew timid under the continuing praise.

“Really, those tankers deserve the praise. They saved us all too.” Elena said.

Sharna crossed her arms. “Showed up out of nowhere and won it all.”

“They really made us infantry look bad.” Leander said, chuckling at himself.

Tankers. Aarya remembered what she saw. Naya in that armored vehicle.

“I would like to do that.” She said. “Thank them. By any chance have you seen them?”

Bonde shook his head. “They’re from Camp Vijaya, farther out in the wood. They’re doing most of the legwork for the evacuation because they control most of the vehicles, and so they took their people and things quickly with the first convoy.”

“The Doctor gave first aid to the crew of the squat green tank.” Elena said. “But they were in and out fast. If it means anything, the gunner and driver were stable enough.”

“It means a lot.” Aarya replied. Naya was fine. She had survived everything.

Aarya supposed there would be another day to be able to meet her again.

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