The flight back to Kandahar was quiet. Carter had a lot of questions, but she knew that the chopper pilots would not have any of the details she wanted. The helicopter touched down, and she was met by Major Brent Barrington; she knew that he could give her answers.
She saluted and fell into step as they walked towards a waiting car. “Major, can you provide any details regarding the situation that I just went through at the camp? How is Captain Evans? Where was he taken for treatment?”
“You were able to survive an insurgent attack from 10 armed rebels who stormed the base. There were 3 casualties on our side and 7 Marines were injured; all 10 of the rebels were neutralized and the threat removed. The base is being fortified, and additional troops are being assigned to duty on the perimeter. You are lucky to be alive, and Captain Evans was taken to a military hospital, but his condition is unknown at this time. Quantico would like for us to get you on transport back to the US as soon as possible.”
“Why would they recall me when I have apparently identified an area of concern and can take the necessary steps to resolve it? My work is not finished.” Carter was a little indignant; she should be thrilled to go back to the States versus fighting to stay.
“You are a liability ma’am, and that is all I am at liberty to say. I will take you to the hotel where you can shower and get some rest. We will try to get you on transport the day after tomorrow.”
Carter knew better than to argue with the Major. She did want to know what he meant about her being a liability. How could she be a problem when she was supposed to be part of the solution? She let her brain bounce these questions around as the car weaved through the streets to deliver her at the hotel the military was using.
After getting to her room, Carter decided that a hot shower would go a long way in helping to calm her nerves and to loosen her tense muscles. She stood under the stream of hot water; a luxury she had truly missed during her time at the outpost. She let the water run over her body and she realized she had scrapes and scratches that she didn’t remember getting; each one stinging as the water hit them. After a rather lengthy shower, she dressed for bed and crawled under the freshly pressed sheets. The hotel wasn’t 5-star, but it was better than a thin mattress on a cot.
Carter woke the next morning; she had a restless night and could not turn off her brain. She kept replaying the argument with Chris and the shot that saved his life. She had extreme guilt over both actions and wrestled with that meant for her. She put her feet on the floor and began to mentally prep for her day. The high priority on her to-do list was to find out where Chris was and how he was doing. She showered, dressed and left her hotel room in the hopes of finding answers.
She went to the military command office and found Major Barrington; she moved with purpose across the room to confront him. He did not look surprised to see her walking toward him. “Good morning Gray, I guess you want to talk?”
“Good morning Major; yes, I do want to talk, can you spare a few moments?” She knew that it would be better to finesse this conversation versus bully her way through it – fragile egos and all. “I can’t help but think that you know a little more than you led on last night about my immediate extrication. Why am I a liability?
“Carter you are not a stupid woman so quit acting like one. And stop asking questions when you know that you will not get an answer you will like.”
Her blood ran cold, and her head snapped at the sound of his voice. “I didn’t expect you to be here.”
“You don’t think a father would just sit at home if he knows he can be there to help do you?”
With those words, Major Barrington bowed out of the room quietly. “I didn’t know you had come over to Afghanistan; guessing you had lost my number before you left.”
“I didn’t think it would matter; after all, I wasn’t being deployed to fight, and you have made it clear in previous conversations that you don’t put much stock in my work.”
“Well you were a liability being in the field – you are a woman and the daughter of a prominent military official. Do you not think that it would make you a target?”
“The insurgents were not after me, they were after weapons. I am capable of doing my job and remember there are thousands of female Marines and they are not liabilities when they are in the heat of battle.” She began heading for the door; having an argument with him did no good and would ruin her mood for days.
“You really are naïve Cater.” His baritone voice boomed through the small room. He walked through the doorway toward the large picture windows; glancing at his daughter as he walked by. “I hear you saved the life of Captain Evans. Glad to see that you still have a steady shot.”
“Yeah, well all I am thinking about right now is finding him and seeing if he is okay.”
“Don’t fight me on this Carter; despite what you might think of me, I am your father, and I care for you. I was not happy when I found out they sent you over here. I believe they did it because they wanted you to make an ass of yourself.” He looked her over; the magnitude of what happened was evident on her face. She was drawn and pale, and he was not confident that she would remain upright for much longer. “You proved your case and damn near got yourself killed; you’ve earned respect from the brass if that is what you were hoping for. Come back home and find a career that makes you happy versus trying to prove to me that you are capable.”
She paused, it certainly sounded as if he was giving her a compliment. A backhanded compliment but a compliment indeed; and it seemed like he had a real concern in his voice. She turned to look at him, “General, I do my job to the best of my ability like I have always been told to do. I followed orders and yesterday I saved someone’s life. I will go home; but only after I see Captain Evans and talk to him. He is what I care about most right now.”
General Gray nodded; he could see that she was genuinely concerned for him, and he was amazed at her singular focus to get to him. He took a few steps forward and held out a piece of paper, “Take it, Carter, it is the hospital information on where you can find Captain Evans.”
She stepped forward and took the paper from his hands and glanced at the information. He was at the military hospital in Kandahar; just two blocks from where she was currently standing. She gave a brief nod of acknowledgment to her father and then exited the room. She walked at a fast clip to the hospital, passed through security and bounded the steps to the 3rd floor. She exited into the hallway and slowed her walk to find his room.
Carter stood at the door for a few minutes before going in; she could not understand why she was so nervous. She slowly pushed the door open and walked in; he was asleep. She could not take her eyes off of his face; he had scrapes on his forehead and on the side of his face near his eyes. However, it was the dark purple bruising on his eyelid, the side of his nose and under his eye that scared her the most. He had taken a tremendous hit to the face, and she began to fear that his eyesight could be damaged. It took a minute for her to realize that his right leg was heavily bandaged and was not under the blanket.
~ * * * ~
“Hey, quit staring at my legs!” His voice was soft, and it cracked ever so slightly. Carter turned to look at him, and he smiled. “Didn’t I tell you to stay barricaded in your space until I came back to you?”
“Yeah, but I don’t listen to orders very well; it’s why I am no longer in the military.” She tried to force a smile, but it was hard. Carter did not like seeing him in this condition; oh, she was happy he was alive, but it caused her pain to see him hurt.
“Well, I am glad you didn’t listen to me because if you had, I might not be here right now.” Chris tried to sit up on the bed; he grimaced as he pulled himself up farther on the bed. He also tried to slide over just a little and patted the bed to offer Carter a place to sit.
She sat down on the bed, trying to sit in just the right way to be able to look at him but not touch him and cause any additional discomfort. “So, what have the doctor’s said?”
“I have a concussion from the hits to the head and my vision is blurry. They said that will improve in a few days. I had a pretty severe wound to the leg and lost a significant amount of blood. Between the damage from the bullet, the blood loss, and my weight on it to get to the chopper – they said it will take quite a while to heal, and I will have to go through rehab.”
Carter hung her head, it pained her to hear of his injuries and to know that she made him walk on it, and it increased the damage. She pulled at the edge of his blanket and began to fidget with it.
“Carter, hey it is okay. I am alive, and that is the important thing. How about you? Are you alright? Are you hurt or anything?”
“I’m okay, no injuries. A little ringing in my ears from the guns and the choppers but that is all.” She could not look up and make eye contact with Chris.
“Did you sleep last night?”
“Yeah, I slept – I think all the adrenaline that I had earlier in the day wore off and I crashed hard. Either that or someone slipped me something when I was being debriefed and taken to the hotel.”
“Carter, look at me,” Chris said as he grabbed her hand to keep her from playing with the blanket. “Talk to me.”
“I don’t know what to say. I feel like I am responsible for what happened to you. You were with me, and you were safe, and I made you go back out there. I kept telling you I could take care of myself.” She took a deep breath, “If you had just stayed in there with me you wouldn’t be in this hospital.”
“Wow, so you feel guilty that I am here? Carter, I would have left you in your office either way. As the CO of that base, I could not hide and let my men fight on their own. That is not who a leader is and deep down you know that.” He sat forward so that he was nose to nose with her. “You saved my life Carter, and that is what you have to keep in mind. Not guilt that I was out there but knowing that if you had not come to find me that I would be dead.”
“I was terrified in that room by myself, and I am not proud to admit that. I know I am a poor excuse for a Marine; I go through training and get a title, and I am scared when I am faced with a combat situation.”
“You are an excellent Marine; anyone would feel the same way when faced with their first combat situation. You weren’t trained for combat Carter. Just because you are a Marine doesn’t mean you are combat ready.” Chris again moved on the bed so that he created a space for her. “Come here and lay down next to me for a minute.”
Carter did as he asked, placing herself beside him and putting her head on his chest. He wrapped his arm around her and held her. “You know I think you are the one who is truly insufferable, and I honestly wouldn’t want it any other way. I owe you my life, Carter Gray.”
“I still think you listened to my entire conversation the other day.”
“You mean when you told Roxie that you are exhausted, and you want to hurry and go home? You mean that conversation?” Chris began to chuckle, “Okay, so I heard a little more than I led on.” He leaned over and kissed her temple, “I like that you aren’t badass all the time; I like the vulnerable and emotional side of you as well. I could really stand to be around you more.”
Carter didn’t respond, and Chris realized she had fallen asleep. It was if her admitting that she was scared took a weight off of her shoulders, and she could relax. Chris pulled her in as tight as he could, put his head on hers and drifted off to sleep.
~ * ~
Carter’s eyes flew open, and she was disoriented. She had no idea where she was or what time it was. She looked down and realized she was in bed with Chris in the hospital. How long had she been asleep? What in the world happened that had allowed her to sleep? Her brain was foggy, and the only thing she knew for sure was that she was comfortable. Her head on his chest, her arm around him; it was heaven. He was as solid as she had expected he would be and for her, it felt natural to be wrapped up with him. Chris had his arm over hers and appeared to be just as content as she was.
While she was enjoying the feeling of being wrapped in his arms, she could not help but think that she needed to get out of the bed. The problem was how do you get up and not disturb him? She began to inch away from him when she felt his grip tighten. “I am not letting you leave just yet; I am rather enjoying this at the moment.”
Carter felt her face begin to flush; he had caught her. “I just needed to the use the ladies room,” she offered.
“Somehow I don’t believe that,” Chris said. He released his grip and allowed her to get up. He did not want to be accused of holding her against her will.
She stood next to the bed and seemed unsure of herself or what to do next. She scanned the room and looked at the clock to see what time it was. “Wow, how long did I sleep? I need to head back to the hotel before the General sends out a search party.”
“The General is here, in Afghanistan?”
“Yeah, I was in the office of Major Bennington this morning trying to get answers about your condition and why I was recalled. The General walked in on that conversation and told me I was really naïve. I honestly don’t know what that was all about.”
“I do; don’t be mad at me Carter but I am thankful they recalled you. I don’t want you out there any longer it is not safe.”
“What do you mean you know what this is about? Enlighten me, Chris, please.”
“The insurgents that attacked, they wanted our weapons stockpile. We have the cache of weapons for the troops in this district. We have the bunkers for it, and we will distribute as needed – we are more or less the supercenter for weapons distribution. I know you know that – it is part of the reports and manifests that you have been reviewing.” Carter nodded in agreement with what he had said. “They had a target that they were after besides the weapons – you Carter, they wanted you.”
Her eyes grew wide, “Me? What are you talking about? I think the drugs they have you on are making you loopy.”
“Think about it Carter – you are the daughter of Brigadier General, who has been on TV voicing his opinion on this war and the insurgents. He has made his stance well known and his only child, a woman no less, is in the area of military operations. You are a high-value target for hostage taking, and you know that never ends well.”
Chris had a point, it was something she had never truly considered, and the gravity of the situation was settling in. She made a dash for the bathroom where she retched; she could barely stand, and she felt as if the room was spinning out of control.
To his credit, Chris did not yell at her. He knew this was hard for her to handle and she needed to take this all in and accept it at her pace. He was concerned for her, but he knew better than to do anything at this moment. He waited.
Carter composed herself, rinsed her mouth and walked back into the room. “So, when the man was beating you and telling you he wanted the target you were protecting me?”
“Yes, and I would do it again.”
She walked to the side of the bed, “He was going to kill you, and you were going to let him to protect me? Why in the hell would you do that?”
Chris had taken seconds before he answered, “First of all, it is my job. I am a Captain in the Marine Corps who is responsible for the people on my base. And that includes every civilian; it is my job to make sure you are safe.” As the words left his mouth, he noticed the light was fading from Carter’s eyes. “And second, well I would do whatever I had to do to keep you safe Carter.” She didn’t respond she just kept staring at him. “I will admit that when I met you, I was not a fan of yours. Frankly, I am pretty sure you were not a fan of mine either. But I did admire your tenacity and the fact that you didn’t just conform to what everyone would expect from you. I respect you Carter and, dare I say it, fallen for you.”
Carter did not respond. Instead, she leaned against the wall as if it was keeping her from collapsing. She was trying to reconcile what Chris had just said. She could have sworn he said he had fallen for her; that just wasn’t possible. Without saying a word she turned and left his hospital room.