Sometimes I really don’t know where my stories come from. No, scratch that “Sometimes.” All of the stories that I think of as my best come through characters who are nothing like me, with lives nothing like mine, but whose voices come naturally as I write. One of the best examples of this, in my biased opinion, happens to fit our current theme of “Rescue” quite literally, so rather than trying to figure out whether I’ve quoted from this story here before, I’ll just go with the serendipitous flow and offer an excerpt from a story that appeared first in Kristina Wright’s anthology Duty and Desire, and is now reprinted in my recent collection Wild Rides.
Sgt. Rae was so strong she could carry me at a run through gunfire and smoke and exploding mines. Two years later, she’s that strong again. With just one hand she can keep me from getting away, no matter how hard I struggle. Even her voice is enough to stop me at a dead run, so it doesn’t matter that she can’t run any more. And anyway, I’d never want to run away.
I’m smaller, but I’ve got my own kind of muscle, even if it doesn’t show. A mechanic in an armored tank unit has to be strong just to handle the tools you need, and if you’re a woman doing the job you need a whole extra layer of strength. I’m not an army mechanic any more, but I can still use tools; Sgt. Rae isn’t an army Sgt. any more, but she’ll always be in charge. At the town hall where she’s the police and fire department dispatcher, they tell me she’s got the whole place organized like it’s never been before.
In our house, or in the town, I’m supposed to just call her Rae these days, and mostly I remember. I’m just Jenny. In the bedroom, we don’t need names at all, except to wake each other when the bad dreams come, and whisper that everything’s all right now. Or close enough to handle, as long as we’re together.
Out here, though, on this trail I’ve made through the woods and across the stream, we play by my rules, and that means I’m Specialist 2nd Brown and she’s the ball-buster Staff Sergeant, even though neither of us has any use for balls.
She’ll be coming along the trail behind me any minute, coming to see what new contraption I’ve constructed. What she expects is something like the exercise stations I’ve built for her into every room in the house, chinning bars and railings and handgrips at different levels, and in a way that’s right, but with a different twist. She expects I’ll want her to order me to drop and do fifty push-ups or sit-ups, or run in place until I’m panting, but this time I want something else.
I check the gears and pulleys one more time, even though I already know the tension is set right. It’s my own tension that’s nearly out of control. The posts and crossbars are rock-solid, while I’m shaking in my old fatigues, so nervous and horny that I can’t even tell which is which.
I hear the motor now. I could’ve made it run quieter, but if you’ve been where I’ve been, where we’ve both been, you want to be sure you know who’s coming around the bend.
She’s crossed the rocky ford in the stream where no regular wheelchair could have gone. I salvaged tracks from old snowmobiles at the repair shop where I work, and they’re as good as any armored tank tracks, even though they’re made of Kevlar instead of steel. Fine for this terrain, and even the steel kind got chewed up in the desert sand in Iraq.
Mustn’t think about the desert now. Here in New Hampshire, green leaves overhead are beginning to turn orange and red. This stream flows into a river just beyond our house, and we can watch canoes and kayaks pass by; no desert in sight. This is home. We’re together. Safe. Except that safe isn’t always enough, when you’ve known—had to know—so much more.
Now I hear Sgt. Rae veering back and forth through the obstacle course, steering the mini-tank around trees, stumps, boulders, right over small logs. With a double set of the tracks on each side, the only way to steer is by slowing one side while accelerating the other, and that takes strength. I think of her big hands on the levers, the bunched muscles of her arms and shoulders, even stronger now than in the army because she insists on a manually powered chair anywhere but in these woods. Gloves help, but her hands get calloused from turning the wheels. Calloused, and rough, even when she tries to be gentle… Anticipation pounds through my body.
I kneel on the ground, close my eyes, try to clear my mind—but on the distant bridge over the river a truck backfires, and in spite of the leafy dampness the desert flashes around me again, the clouds of dust, the explosions, the machine gun fire on that final day. I think of Sgt. Rae’s powerful voice, how it cut through the pain and confusion and kept me breathing when I didn’t think I could last another second. “Brown!” she bellowed, again and again, coming closer to where the shattered truck cab trapped me. “Brown, damn you, report!” That sound gripped me, forced strength into me, so that I moved, just a little, no matter how much it hurt, and she found me.
I never remember what happened next. I don’t think Sgt. Rae does, either, but somebody told me later they found a bent assault rifle barrel nearby, and maybe she levered the truck cab up enough with that to drag me out. I just remember being slung over her shoulder, feeling her run and swerve and run some more, and hearing her voice drilling right through to my heart in a tone I’d never heard before. “Jenny, Jenny…hang on…”
Right then, with bullets still screaming around us, it was like I’d died and waked up to a new world. Ever since the day we met, Sgt. Rae had mesmerized me, obsessed me, and I’d worked to hide my foolish longings behind hard work and casual jokes and chatter. But in that moment, as her strong voice shook, a window opened in the midst of hell and gave me a glimpse of a heaven better than anything they’d ever preached about in church.
I passed out when she set me down behind a sand bunker some of our guys had piled up in a hurry. Maybe I heard somebody say another soldier was still out there, or maybe I just heard later how she went back into that hell. Either way, I know she went.
It was a month before I saw Sgt. Rae again. I was still bandaged but up and walking. She wasn’t. At first, when I stood beside the hospital bed, I wondered whether she was really there at all, inside, until she saw me.
I could scarcely hear the word. But then strength came back into her voice, and the power I’d always felt surrounding her was there again as though a light had been switched on. “Specialist Brown, report!”
So I did, listing my injuries and treatments and recovery, even though her half-smile softened the formal order. Later, when she’d had her meds and fallen asleep, I pumped the nurses about her injuries and prognosis, and from that day I was never away from her for more than a few hours. There were some rough parts, and sometimes I had to be the strong one to get her through. A nurse or two caught on that there was more to it than just that she’d saved my life, but they never made any fuss. It helped that I could fix mechanical glitches in the orthopedic ward’s equipment, and even make some things work better than originally designed; I think somewhere along the line they claimed me as an adjunct physical therapy technician.
The dampness of the ground soaking through my jeans brings me back to the present. Sgt. Rae is coming around the clump of hemlock saplings. It’s time, and now I’m ready, in position, on my knees, hands clasped high above my head, ropes wrapped around my wrists, head bowed.
I can’t salute in this position, but I try to sound as though I were doing it. “Sergeant, yes Sergeant!”
“What do you think you’re doing, Brown?”
“Sergeant, I’m kneeling, Sergeant.”
“I can see that. But do you know what you’re doing?”
Without looking I can tell she’s surveying the situation. A pair of leather-wrapped rings hangs right where she can stretch up and reach them. The system of gears and pulleys is rigged to offer just the right amount of resistance and stability for her to pull herself to a standing position, brace with forearms at chest level on a crossbar, and then lower her weight slowly back down. Three of the doorways in our house have similar setups, but this one is more complex—and in this one, the counterweight is me.
“Sergeant, yes Sergeant, I do know what I’m doing.”
There’s the slightest of creaks as she begins to rise. The ropes tighten, and I rise, too, until I’m dangling in the air, helpless—or as helpless as I can make myself seem. My wrists are padded just enough to keep the circulation from being cut off. I could thrash, and kick—I fought off rape a time or two in the army, before I got to Sgt. Rae’s squad, where you’d better believe no woman ever had to fear attack by fellow soldiers—but now I’m sinking into sub space, wide open, vulnerable.
That’s about two thirds of the story, but by the end it’s even more clear how each of these characters has rescued the other.
(Just a note to apologize for my lack of commenting on other posts on Oh Get a Grip, but for some time now this site—and even my own blogger site—won’t accept comments from me, even though I can manage to do new posts.)