My trip back home, back into the real world, was considerably calmer than my journey in the other direction the previous Friday evening, and when I got there, I found that Kit was already back.
“Hey,” he said, setting a mug down on the counter while the kettle boiled. “I wondered where you were. Tried calling you.”
“Sorry,” I said, unable to meet his eye.
He shrugged. “I only got back about twenty minutes ago.” He peered more closely at me and added, “You ok?”
I chewed the inside of my cheek and debated whether I got him to sit down or not. Deciding to go for it, I blurted, “Luke’s been hurt, and he’s probably in transit to a UK hospital right about now. I have to call them to get an update.”
Kit froze and then went visibly paler. “Oh my god, what happened? When did it happen? Are you ok? Is he ok?”
I nodded. I preluded the news with a quick “He was hurt pretty badly but…” and then began to detail his injuries and the details as far as I could.
“When will we know more? When can we see him?” He took it surprisingly well, and when I'd told him all I knew, I called the number the two officers had left me.
My heart leapt and I turned to Kit as I hung up, thanking the lady on the other end profusely. “He’s in the UK! Landed this morning, and he’s stable, but still in intensive care. We can go see him whenever.”
Kit blew out the breath I hadn’t realised he’d been holding, and said, “When do you want to go?”
“Like, five minutes ago!” I gabbled. “But first… I need to tell you something else.”
“Oh?” he was now sitting on the sofa with his feet up on the cushion, nursing his big mug of tea. He surveyed me over the rim and his eyes went wide as I told him where I’d spent the weekend. Then, to my great surprise, he laughed. “I’m glad.”
“You are? I thought you said Caleb was a shit for behaving like that…”
“He was, but he obviously loves you.”
I smiled and tried not to conjure images of him lying in bed that morning. “Yeah, he does.”
“He’s not the only one who’s love-struck,” Kit snorted into the dregs of his tea. We sat in comfortable silence for a while and then a thought dropped through Kit’s brain and fell out of his mouth before he could stop it. “You want to ask Caleb to come with you to see Luke?”
“What? Why? That could set his PTSD off something wicked.”
Kit blushed and dropped his gaze to his socks. “Of course, I hadn’t thought of that. You still want to go today?”
“You've done a lot of driving already this morning, and it’s a long way,” I hedged. It was times like this that I regretted never learning to drive.
He shrugged. “I don’t mind. We can always stop off on the way if I need to.”
“Ok.” I bit my lip.
Truth be told, I was terrified of seeing him. I thought it’d only make it all the more real that he was hurt and there was every chance there could still be some kind of complication, and he might not make it.
I reached for my phone and messaged Caleb. Luke's back in the UK! Going to see him today. It’s a long drive from here, but Kit and I want to see him.
Immediately a message bounced back. I’m glad you can go see him. If want me to come with you, just ask. Xxx
Bless you. Bless you a million times over for offering.
I mean it.
Thank you. You're my hero. I don’t want to put you out though… And I know hospitals aren’t necessarily your thing, and this is a military one…
If you’re there, I’ll be ok.
My heart stopped beating. My expression must have given me away, because Kit asked, “Hey, you ok?”
“Caleb volunteered to come…”
“Just like that?” I quizzed. I looked a little harder at my brother’s best friend and asked, “You’re testing him, aren’t you?”
He shrugged and stood, glugging the last of his tea down. “If he’s serious about you, he’ll do it. The fact that he offered is a good sign.”
“When do you want to leave?” I asked. Kit’s attitude seemed rather callous, but I couldn’t blame him after the state I’d been in.
“Give me an hour or so to sort my stuff out from this weekend?”
I stood as well, and messaged Caleb again. I’d love that, thank you. We’re aiming to leave in an hour or so. Does that suit?
He didn’t reply straight way, so I washed up our mugs, and by the time they were draining, I heard my phone go.
Works fine for me. You want me to come to you, or will you pick me up on your way out?
We arranged to pick him up, and as the car drew to a halt outside his house, I scampered out and shot down the path to his door. He embraced me warmly and kissed me, tasting of toothpaste, and I rubbed the corner of his mouth affectionately where he’d missed a bit.
“Yup. Kit’s waiting in the car.”
He cocked an ear and caught the engine and nodded. Turning back over his shoulder, he called a farewell to his Nan, and then followed me down the path with his white cane folded up in his coat pocket. His brace was back on, judging by the way he was walking with less of a limp, and I hoped it wouldn't hurt him. He was so sweet, making so much effort for me.
I sat in the back with him and held his hand, largely in warm silence for the first hour. When I felt him wince a few times, I looked up at his face and whispered, “You ok?”
He nodded, looking a little green around the gills.
“Caleb?” My thumb stroked the top of his hand, bumping over the delicate bones.
He smiled and hissed back, “I forgot to take travel sick pills. I… I’m kind of bad with moving vehicles.”
"You want to stop?" Kit asked from the front. "I can pull over..."
"Only if you n-need a break," Caleb said firmly. "It'll only -start up again -when we g-get moving, and I'm not g-going to throw up. Thanks though."
"Ok, holler if you decide you do need to stop."
After another few moments, I tightened my grip on his hand and shuffled a little closer to him. ".. um..." I began, and Caleb immediately picked up the harmonic of distress in my voice.
He frowned and clenched his fingers. "What is it?"
I chuckled nervously. "I'm like an open book to you, aren't I?"
He brought his other hand over and traced his fingertips over the top of my hand where it lay clutching his right hand. It took me only a fraction of a second to realise he was mimicking the way he read Braille, and then he nodded. "Yup. Open book. Al-Alyssa , Ch-Chapter Two, now fully blind-person friendly."
I snorted and him on the nose with my free hand, which made him jump and he laughed with me.
"Ok, m-mostly friendly," he amended. "-What's on y-y-your mind?"
".. I told Luke about us when we were first dating, but..." I nibbled my lip.
"Y-You didn't tell him we --broke up, did you?"
I shook my head. "No. I didn't want him to worry about me. It seemed so trivial compared to what he was facing out there. Heck, it still does, especially since we're back together again like it never happened..."
"I won't m-mm-men-..." He faltered and the sound died between his lips. "Sorry. Um, I w-won't -bring it up."
I leaned across and kissed his beautiful, stuttering lips, his cheeks still flushed a cherry blossom pink. "Thanks," I breathed.
He squeezed my hand and we fell back into our cosy, cuddly silence for the remainder of the long journey. Caleb's body was soft, relaxed, despite his sickness, and his head lolled on his shoulders as he dipped into sleep for a moment. His glasses slid a little way down his nose as his head drooped and I contemplated taking them off for him, but never got the chance as he tipped his head right back against the side of the car and, with softly parted lips, breathed heavily as he sank down into sleep a little further. I had to smile. He was beautiful.
All that softness in him was replaced by high, nervous tension when we were standing beside the reception desk in the hospital. The air was thick with antiseptic and that other smell that clings to places like doctors' surgeries and hospitals. The smell of sickness.
Caleb stood perfectly still beside me as Kit asked where my brother was, and I felt the tension ratchet up through his whole body the more he breathed in the smell of the hospital. I slipped my arm through his and pulled him close to me. "You're my hero, remember. You've got this."
He tried to smile, but it was watered down by his fear.
"Caleb, look at me," I said.
He didn't understand what I meant for a moment, so I reached up for his ear and ran my finger delicately around it, like I was tucking a strand of hair back behind it. I went onto tiptoes and brought my lips to the soft shell of his ear and whispered, "That's it. Don't focus on anything else but the sound of these boots when we walk through the corridors, ok?"
He hissed out a breath and shuddered. "Thank you."
I tugged him gently as Kit moved off. "This way."
And my boots did make a noise. They clacked loudly. I'd chosen them deliberately. Caleb walked with his head lowered, the next thing to having his ear literally 'to the ground'. Men and women in uniform strode past, and I caught the way Caleb's ear would wander, picking up the clink of the poppers and zips of uniform pockets, the distinctive way the soldiers moved, their motions almost as stiff as their uniforms. I nudged him gently with my elbow and he nodded his thanks.
More than once I was struck by the way people stared at Caleb and me. I turned to look at him and for the first time in a long time, I saw the same military set of his shoulders mirroring that of the officers we passed. They knew. They knew he'd been hurt in combat. I had to remind myself then that I was walking in step with a soldier as well as my boyfriend. Away from his band of noisy friends, and when the PTSD faded into the background, biding its time between nightmares, he was just a man in his late twenties to me, but when I looked up at Caleb now, I saw a wounded soldier. A veteran.
He paused mid-step and twisted his ear up so that it was no longer listening as acutely to my footsteps but more to my breath. "Hey, are you ok?" he asked.
"Yeah," I replied, my voice unexpectedly hoarse.
"Don't lie to me," he said. It wasn't harsh, but it was a little stern. "You're not ok. Is it L-L-Luke?"
"It's not Luke," I said, though my chest was alive with a thousand fire ants at the thought of seeing him.
"What is it?"
"It's you," I whispered, my voice cracking. "You look so much like all these soldiers going past us. I never really saw it properly before, not even when you're with your old unit, but here..." I shuddered. "You walk like they do, you carry yourself like they do… I just keep seeing you in their faces. I..." I took another shallow, almost panicked intake. "I'm imagining you in here after you got hurt..."
"Stop," he said. His tone was now insistent. "Stop. You're here for L-L-L... for your brother, and I'm here for you. Ok?"
I smiled and nodded weakly.
"-Blind men and nods..." He teased me.
I squeezed his hand.
Luke's room was at the end of a long corridor. Kit ducked out of our little formation of three to talk to the nurse about his condition, and I went ahead with Caleb. I hung back a moment on the threshold, and then pushed the door open.
Luke was dreadfully pale, hooked up to all sorts of machines and drips, the function of which I had no idea, and his leg was up in a cast. I burst into tears the moment I saw him, and Caleb held me.
I got a hold of myself a minute or two later, and snuffled my thanks at him, before stepping over to my brother. "Hey," I croaked, running my hand through his hair. His eyes were closed, but the lids twitched. "I know you probably can't hear me, but it's me. It's Little . I'm here. I'm here and I love you, and you're so brave."
After a while, Kit and the nurse came in and tried to tell us a bit about his injuries and the expected recovery time. I swallowed and breathed out. He was hurt, but he was healing pretty well. They were going to bring him out of the medical coma soon. The nurse handed us a patient diary, and explained that we could write something in it if we wanted, so that he'd know we'd been to see him if they woke him when we weren't there.
"Where's his armband?" I asked the nurse as I leafed through the patient diary. There were scribbles in there from the rest of his unit, as well as the trauma team at Bastion. My eyes watered at the sight of the kind things they said about him, and all the well wishes they left him.
"Yeah, the medic band," I said. "Where is it?"
"Oh, of course. I..." She looked around her and then said, "It might be with his things."
"Might be?" I snarled acidly. "That represents what, who, he is. It's his identity -"
Caleb reacted instantly, reaching for my arm and holding me tightly. Calm down.
I inhaled, held it, let it go, and then asked, "Would you check please?"
Caleb leaned down and kissed the side of my head again.
I bit my lip and then pressed my side briefly into his. "I'm sorry."
When the nurse returned with it in her hand, I apologised to her, and thanked her more gently. I went gingerly over to where Luke was lying. I lifted his lifeless fingers and slid the band between them. I turned around to Caleb and told him what I'd wanted it for and what I had done.
The look of pride on his face surprised me. "That's g-good," he murmured. "When I w-woke up, I... I was alone. I had nothing. But when they c-came to see me, Amy brought me my beret and badge. When I held it, I c-could say I w-was still a R-Rifleman."
I held him.
Kit and I made the trip alone to see Luke twice more before he woke. I sat with him for hours, listening to the machines around me, holding his hand and telling him I loved him and I was so proud of him. When they did wake him, he was groggy and dazed, and we weren't allowed to stay for long. On the fifth visit, he was very much his old self, though his humour was tempered by pain, and his breathing was a bit ragged still. He got tired quickly.
Caleb came with me to see him again when Luke was much better. I'd rung the hospital that morning, spoken to Luke as well, and heard how well he was doing, but I'd been so desperate to see him when we'd got there that I had completely ignored the fact that my body was telling me I had to pee after the long journey. I sat with him, elated at the progress he was making, chatting and listening in alternate bursts while my knees bobbed up and down wildly.
"," Luke chided. "You ok?"
"What? Of course I am. Look at you," I grinned. “You’re healing up so nicely!”
"Why are you sitting in that chair like a toddler who's about to piss herself?"
I flushed and smacked him on the hand. Caleb, who was still on his feet to stretch out after the long car journey, barked a loud laugh.
"Fine," I said, pouting as I stood. "Fine, I thought I'd come straight in here and see you, but if you'd rather I go take a piss, that's fine." Both boys were laughing at me and I smiled, glad to see them at ease. "I'll get some tea while I'm out too," I added. I paused and then turned to Caleb and pressed my hand onto his. "You want one?"
"For a m-minute there I thought you were g-going for a jack brew," he smirked. Luke snorted and I glared daggers at the two of them. If they thought I didn't know that term by now, they were mistaken. And anyway, like I’d ever make a cuppa for myself and not for anyone else.
I rolled my eyes, smartly informed Caleb that I had done so, and retreated.
When I returned some time later – hospital corridors all look the same, so it wasn't my fault I got lost – I heard the sound of their voices and lingered out of sight for a moment, sipping my tea and listening curiously.
Caleb was standing beside Luke's bed, leaning casually on his black cane. Luke laughed hoarsely in response to something I'd just missed Caleb say, and then said, "You know, I was awake during the medevac after I got zapped."
"Christ," Caleb hissed. "I wasn't."
"They told me I was going back to Butlins, but I wouldn't be able to enjoy the fun..."
Butlins? It'd been a while since I'd had to translate Army English into normal English. Butlins. Bastion?
"Christ, I was a mess. Blood coming from everywhere. Leg, lungs... I remember just before I started to crash I heard the boss yelling something at me."
Caleb drew his shoulders up and assumed an imposing posture, hands clasped behind his back. "If y-you don't buck up and pull it together, son, I'm g-going to r-rip that l-leg right off and beat you with the soggy end," Caleb said in a strong and somewhat pompous voice I'd never heard before.
Luke laughed, and Caleb joined him, relaxing again. "Fuck me," Luke breathed, "You really were a captain, weren't you? Yeah, it was something very like that," Luke wheezed. "Oh god," he moaned. "I still can't seem to believe this really happened. I know I got off lightly though. Fuck, one look at you tells me I did." I inhaled sharply at his bluntness. Caleb didn’t seem fazed by it.
"Don’t worry," Caleb smiled. "They'll assign you y-your own personal club swinger, and y-you'll be back on your feet in no time."
"Trust me. G-Give it a l-lot of effort, and a g-good dose of p-patience..." I was taken aback by their bluntness to each other, but I forced myself to stay put as I heard Caleb go on.
I noticed a drop in the energy of the room, and Luke slumped into his pillows, looking drawn and tired. "Can I ask you something?"
Caleb nodded. "Anything."
"How's been?" I almost dropped my tea as tears choked my throat up. "How's she dealing with this."
"L-Like a champion," he said without hesitation. "I mean, she was a bit of a mess when they first told her, but if y-you're anything l-like her, you're tough. Y-You'll pull through."
"You love her, don’t you?" Luke asked.
My heart was in my mouth.
"Yeah," Caleb said, his voice gritty. He shuffled where he stood beside Luke's bed, leaning heavily on the black cane. "Yeah, she..." He paused and I realised with jolt that he was about to cry. I wanted nothing more that to go to him, but I knew they needed to have this moment together. I forced myself to rivet my feet to the spot. Caleb didn’t cry in the end, but he puffed out a sigh. “She brought me back to life, I guess.”
Luke grinned and lay there breathing for a moment. He was still pale and weak, and I think Caleb was wondering if he’d passed out or gone back to sleep. Eventually, getting his breath back, Luke let out a little laugh. “I know we’re twins,” he said, “But I was born first, so technically I’m her big brother. It’s my job to try and scare off guys from her, but she seems happy with you. It’s nice.” He yawned, and winced.
“You’re tired,” Caleb stated.
“I want to wait she comes back,” he mumbled. “But I’m…” His head lolled and Caleb reached for his forearm.
“It’s ok,” he said. “You r-rest.”
Luke’s hand twisted, careful not to pull out any of the drips, and he grasped Caleb’s hand in his. I was surprised by the way they were behaving with each other, but it made me smile to see that Caleb was accepted by Luke. I had taken half a step to go back in before he fell asleep when I heard him say, “Look after her, Caleb. Don’t hurt her.”
“I promise you,” Caleb hissed. “I’ll always be there for her.”
I began to cry. Tears rolled down my face as I stood there. Luke was asleep by the time I mustered the courage to go all the way in and, approaching Caleb from behind, I put my tea down and looped my arms around his waist and planted my cheek against his back.
“You heard that, didn’t you?” he rumbled.
I nodded, moving my cheek over the soft fabric of his t-shirt.
“C-C-Come here,” he stuttered, his throat contracting rapidly. He raised his left arm and invited me to sneak around to his front. I did as he requested. “I mean it.” He whispered into my red hair. "Always."
(or is it...?)