Her hands hooked on to his jacket, and she held on.
“No,” she said.
They rode in silence the rest of the way, but she stayed close, their thighs touching, her hand looped through the crook of his elbow. The snow was thicker and beginning to swirl by the time they got to the hospice. When the sleigh had coasted to a stop, however, she did not jump down. Beyond the glass doors, she could see the hospice guard watching, his hand on the push bar to let her in.
She turned to Chris. “How long do you think you’ll be gone?”
“Awhile, maybe. Couple weeks.” His mouth moved in a tense, uncertain, lopsided smile. Snow clung to his dark hair. “Don’t worry. I’ll have someone here for you.”
“I’m not worried about me.” She took his hand, and their fingers laced. “When you get back …”
“Yeah,” he said.
This time, when they kissed, there were only apples: sweet and crisp and right.
That afternoon, one of the nurses dashed out of the treatment room for something or other, and left a clutch of fresh instruments spread on a tray. One was a Gigli saw, a coil of wire that could cut through bone—or a tree, or a man’s neck. The saw was sixteen inches long with two handles. Coiled, she could slip it into her jeans. A saw like that would come in handy on the road for a girl on the run.
She left the saw where it was.
Two weeks into the New Year, a nurse stuck his head into the treatment room where she and Kincaid were putting the finishing touches on a laceration and said, “Boss, just got word from an advance scout. Hank and them’s coming in hot. Found someone in an old barn up by Oren.”
“We know how bad?” asked Kincaid.
“Sounds septic. Wound infection, looks like a bite.” He paused. “Boss, they say he’s a Spared.”
At that, she almost gasped. Her first thought was that Tom had been bitten. Could it be? No, it couldn’t be Tom; too much time, nearly two months, had passed.
“Get me a gurney for out front, and get a tech in here now. I’ll be right there,” said Kincaid, and then to her: “Go on, finish up. We don’t got all day.”
“Sorry.” She concentrated on that last stitch, then tied and snipped. She did it all calmly enough, but her heart was trying to break through her ribs. She reached for a packet of gauze bandage, but Kincaid was already stripping off his gloves. “Leave it, leave it,” he said. “I need you with me.” He snapped his fingers at a tech, pointed at the patient, and was out the door with Alex on his heels.
Dashing down to the lobby, they pushed out through the double doors as first a single rider thundered down the approach road, followed an instant later by a horse-drawn flatbed sleigh. A man she didn’t know, but who must be Hank, was handling the horses; Alex spotted two boys in the sled. With a little stab of surprise, she recognized Greg. What was he doing here? He’d gone out with Chris…. All thoughts of that vanished when she realized that Greg was doing CPR.
“Whoa, whoa!” Hank shouted, as the horses charged around the breezeway. He pulled back on the reins hard enough that one of the horses reared in protest. “Whoa, easy!”
The two horses stamped and jolted to a shuddering halt, and then Kincaid was dashing for the sleigh, hoisting himself onto a runner. “What do we got? How bad is he?” Then he got a good look and said, “Oh Lord.”
Heart jamming into her throat, Alex crowded in beside Kincaid and then didn’t know whether to sob with relief or fury.
It was not Tom. Of course, it wouldn’t, couldn’t be. The boy was young, no older than eight or nine. And Greg had ripped open the boy’s jacket and shirt to do CPR, so she could see the birdcage of his ribs and the knobs of his shoulders. His eyes were closed and sunken, and he was deathly pale, his lips almost blue. The right leg of his jeans was shredded and oozy, and the smell was overpowering. Her breath thinned as she caught his smell: rotting and fetid.
“Found him by his lonesome in a barn. Arrested on the road,” Greg said, without breaking stride. He was sodden with sweat, breathless from exertion. “Been at this about … four-one-thousand, five … go.” At his signal, the other boy who’d preceded the sleigh up the road—she thought his name was Evan—squeezed an ambubag, forcing air into the unconscious boy’s lungs. Greg ducked his head into his shoulder to smear away sweat. “Ten minutes now.”
“Ten minutes too long,” Kincaid said. He turned as Paul, an elderly male nurse with a permanent beer belly, rattled up with a gurney. “I got this, Paul. I want IVs set up, large bore, and get me a CVP line—”
“I don’t know if we got one, Boss. We’re so low—”
“Find me a damned line, Paul! Don’t you show your face without one—you got that? And get out the crash cart, whatever you can scrounge. Move it!” As Paul hurried back inside, Kincaid wrestled the gurney alongside the wagon, butting it in place with his hips. “All right, people, bells and whistles on this one. Let’s—” He paused, a curious expression creasing his weathered features.
Hank, who’d already leapt down to help move the injured boy to the gurney, looked over at Kincaid. “Doc, you okay?”
“Yeah, just a sec. Greg, hold up there, let me check for a pulse.” And then Kincaid stared right at her, grabbing her eyes, and she read the question as if he’d spoken it aloud: Is it safe?
It was a question she knew would come eventually, one they’d never asked before.
“Is there a pulse?” said Greg.
Kincaid didn’t answer. She knew she couldn’t afford to be wrong. The dead-meat stink was unmistakable, but it was also
different: gassy and almost sweet.
“Doc?” Hank asked.
Dead meat, yes; that’s infection, not the Change. She gave Kincaid the barest of nods.
“I’m not getting anything. Greg, keep on those compressions. All right, let’s go,” Kincaid said. “Move him on three. One, two …”
Straddling the gurney, Greg continued CPR all the way to the treatment room as Evan trotted alongside with the ambu-bag. She and Paul started the IVs, and Paul had found a CVP line somewhere that Kincaid now threaded into the boy’s subclavian vein.
“This is the last of the bicarb,” Paul said, handing Kincaid a syringe. “You sure you want to—”
“Can’t think of a better time. Push that on in there…. We got atropine? All right, hold on…. Greg, stop compressions.” Eyes closed, Kincaid listened through his stethoscope, then said, “Hold on, I think … Paul, push that atropine in.”
They waited. Greg was panting, the sweat running in rivulets down his neck. Paul glanced at a stopwatch. “Fifteen minutes, twenty seconds, Boss.”
“I got something,” said Kincaid, glancing at his watch now and counting under his breath. “Paul, get me a BP.”
“Sixty over thirty, Boss.”
“All right, that’s not great, but it’s not terrible. This boy might make it after all.” Kincaid snapped on a pair of gloves. “Let’s see what we got. Alex, I need your hands—glove up.”
The stink that pillowed from the boy’s left thigh smelled of rot and was bad enough that even Kincaid winced. Someone had tried to bandage the wound, but the wrappings were soggy and stained green and yellow with pus. Alex felt her stomach turn over as Kincaid peeled away the oozy gauze wraps. Pus, yellow-green as snot, puddled in the open wound, and the shredded flesh along the wound’s margins was black. Thin red streaks coursed the length of the boy’s thigh to his knee and radiated to his crotch.
“Seventy-five over forty.”
“All right,” Kincaid said as he began sponging away the mess with gauze pads. On the gurney, the corners of the boy’s eyes twitched, and then he let out a low moan. “I know,” Kincaid murmured as he worked. “I know it’s bad, son. I’m sorry, I know. You just hold on there.”
“That’s good, right, Doc? His pressure?” asked Greg, arming away sweat.
“Well, it’s not bad. You boys catch a name before you hightailed it outta there?”
“Naw. Like I said, he’s been out of it.”
“Okay. Alex, draw up a couple fifty-cc syringes of saline and irrigate the hell out of this, would you?”
Alex was glad for something to do. As she pulled up the fluid, Greg said, “You can save him, right?”
“We are certainly going to try. He might lose that leg, but one thing at a time. Greg, get yourself into some dry clothes before you catch your death. How’s that arm of yours? Either you boys hurt?”
“Naw, everyone got out okay, Doc,” said Greg, flexing the arm where he’d been wounded three weeks before.
“Good, I didn’t want to be patching you up again. What about the others?”
“They’re about a day behind.”
“All right. Now you two get on out of here and let me work. Paul, get me a surg kit; we’re going to be doing some cutting here, and I want some Cipro in him right now.”
Paul pulled a small glass vial from a mostly empty med cart. “Boss, that’s the last of—”
“The last of the Cipro, I know. Just do it, Paul. Alex, you can stop irrigating. Cut away the rest of his clothes, so I can see what I’m doing.” Kincaid glanced at her over his mask. “Let’s just hope this poor boy stays out.”
As Kincaid cleaned and debrided the wound, she worked a pair of heavy surgical scissors through the boy’s pants, cut those away, and then attacked what was left of his shirt. Slicing through flannel, she suddenly recoiled. “Oh, gross.”
“What?” asked Kincaid.
“I think …” The boy had another large bite wound, raw and weeping and filled with what looked like white rice—and then the rice moved. “I think they’re maggots.”
“Really?” Kincaid took a long look and then nodded. “Excellent.”
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