Pain came first, pulling him back toward consciousness. Followed by the realization that he must have screwed up royally again, and wondering just what the hell he’d gotten himself into this time.
“Jack?” It came out a whisper. There was no answer, no “it’s okay, I’m here, you can go back to sleep now.” Crap. Reluctantly, he dragged his eyes open, looking around an unfamiliar room. It was getting dark outside, judging by the faint light visible through the window. There was a fireplace on the other side of the room, and a table near it where a woman stood with her back to him. Her feet were bare, and her straight black hair was pulled back in a braid that fell past her waist.
Memory flooded back to him abruptly. Nicaragua. The mission. The bar fight. His own unforgivable lack of caution, assuming a crowd of drunken villagers could pose no threat, and the sudden shock as the knife went in, blood pouring warm and sticky through his fingers. There was nothing after that, nothing but a jumbled noise of shouting.
He remembered just in time that he couldn’t use his friend’s real name here, sitting up and swinging his legs over the edge of the cot.
A nauseating flash of pain shot through his whole right side, doubling him over as he pressed one hand against the wound, like that would help. Gray spots flickered about the edges of his vision, and through it all he felt a warm hand on his arm, and a soft voice speaking.
The words were Spanish, and it was a couple seconds before his brain could focus enough to start translating.
“ …rest, señor, lie still. You are not well.”
Ya think? Jack’s sarcastic voice echoed in his mind. “My friend.” He sat up slowly, his hand still held against his side, looking into a dark, lined face. He had to think to remember the code name. “Bob. Where is he? Is he all right?”
In this light her eyes looked almost black. “You were alone when they brought you here. If your companion was hurt, he would be brought to a different house. If he is well he is speaking to the comandante.”
His last memory was of Jack’s voice, shouting his name as he went down. “Where? How long have I been here? I have to find out… ”
“Be still,” she commanded, a hand on his shoulder pushing him back when he would have tried to stand. “You were brought here only a few minutes ago. The comandante will be here once it is fully dark, to speak with you. But first I must stitch your wound. You have been very fortunate.”
It was a couple seconds before the significance of her words struck him. “You know who we are.”
“I know you are CIA. That is all I need to know.” With one hand, she beckoned to someone he couldn’t see, and he heard the door creak open. “It is all right, Juan is a friend,” she said, as he tried to turn to see who was here. “My husband was killed fighting for the contras. My son is with them now.” She said it calmly, as she tugged his hand gently away from the wound, unbuttoning his shirt and discarding it on the floor. “I will not betray you.”
“Señora?” A soft voice spoke from near the door.
“Go outside, amigo, and pull a few hairs from the old mule’s tail behind the house.” Frank’s eyebrows shot up at these words, as she picked up a needle that looked very large and very painful. God, this was not going to be fun. Looking down at his hand, he could see it was covered in blood. He didn’t want to look at the stab wound itself.
He knew enough about first aid to know the woman was right. He’d been extremely lucky. If that knife had struck anything vital he would be in a hell of a lot worse shape than he was. All the same, it hurt like hell, and he knew he couldn’t afford to take it easy and let himself heal. Not for a while, anyway.
“How old is your son?” he asked quietly, to make conversation, and to distract himself from what was coming.
“He could be around your age, now,” she said. “I have not seen him in two years.” There was a sort of sad patience in her face, as the door opened again and Juan came in, this time with another unfamiliar man. “You are all so very young.”
The faces of the boys on the truck rushed back to him then, the image so clear for a second, their mouths frozen open in shock, rifles still clutched in their hands. Compared to them he was not so young at all.
He wondered what she saw when she looked at him, watching as she threaded one long hair through the needle. Her hands were steady and sure. She was on their side, a contra supporter, but she hadn’t sounded particularly enthusiastic about him. Did she see a young man wounded and scared, the same age as her own son? Or did she see the representative of the CIA, bringing a future for her country that had been decided by faceless men in Washington, one of those who had trained her husband and her son and sent them to fight?
It was hard for him to imagine how she saw this war, for all he’d been on combat missions many times in the last five years. Those wars were different. Far away, always someone else’s land and future at stake. Sure, it was all part of containing Communism and safeguarding the security of the United States. But these wars never came home. These wars he fought would never touch his own country, his own family, and whatever scars they left on his soul were his secrets. No American towns would be burned, no Sandinista security police would come at night to round up his friends and neighbors. He was here, he supposed, to make sure it stayed that way. To stop these threats before they spread far enough to reach his homeland.
But it was hard, seeing her patient eyes, hearing the calm in her voice as she spoke of her life, not to feel guilty for having so much that she did not.
She laid down the needle, picked up what looked like a battered military-issue canteen and held it to his lips. Whatever it contained, it certainly wasn’t water. Smelled like some kind of potent local moonshine. He pushed her hand away gently. “Drink,” she insisted, looking perplexed. “You will need it.”
Oh, I’m sure I will , he thought, shaking his head emphatically as he lay back on the cot. The comandante was going to be here tonight, and if anything had happened to Jack he’d have to be sharp and ready to go.
Or as sharp and ready to go as you can be, when you’ve just had a knife stuck into you, he amended silently. He watched as the guerrilla behind her took the canteen, taking a swig from it and passing it to his friend. They were both shaking their heads in the young American’s direction.
Oh, this was so not gonna be fun.
He thought of his wife, of Sara and her unborn child. Which led him back to thinking about Jack, and wondering where he was, and wanting to go out right now and find out.
Just let him be alive, he thought, gritting his teeth. He has to be alive. He has to be.
The door creaked again, and the two men left. Frank closed his eyes, leaning back against the thin pillow and trying to breathe slowly. Trying to tell himself this wasn’t going to hurt, no, not half as bad as some of the shit he’d been through, it was only a tiny little needle, how bad could it be, oh God, oh fuck —
“Be still,” she said, softly but firmly, and in response he taught her a few brand new English words you probably wouldn’t find in Webster’s Dictionary. Her hand was pressing down on the wound, fingers holding the ragged edges of flesh together, and the pressure sent sickening waves of pain through his lower right side, throbbing steadily with every beat of his heart.
Surprising, the thought flickered through his mind, how something so small could hurt so damn much. His head had that funny, dizzy feeling that meant he was about to either pass out or throw up. She pulled the thread tight with a jerk that seemed to vibrate along frayed nerve endings, and he clutched handfuls of the blanket in both fists, holding on tight with what little strength he had left. He wanted to tell her to slow down, exhaling through gritted teeth as the needle went in again, and he had to fight to stay still, not to twist away from her.
Breathe, he told himself sternly. Just breathe… He kept his eyes closed, but he could imagine her hands with every sharp jab, calm and methodical, like she was mending an old shirt of her husband’s. Except she didn’t have a husband, of course. Shit. Don’t think about that now. He wondered if she had to do this often.
He could almost hear the voice of his old drill sergeant. Suck it up, airman. No matter how bad it hurts, at least you know you’re not dead yet. There was a heavy silence inside the little hut, save for the ragged sound of his breathing.
It seemed like forever, and there was no light coming through the single window by the time she finished. When he opened his eyes she was standing up, wiping hands slick with his blood on her apron. “You done?” he grunted, not realizing until she turned away without an answer that he’d spoken in English.
Sitting beside him again, she dabbed at the wound with a wet cloth. He took one look at the neat row of knots along the still-oozing slash, and looked away again quickly. Some things you really don’t need to know what they look like.
After she’d finished bandaging him to her satisfaction, she got up and went to the window, peering outside for a moment before drawing the curtain. “The comandante will be here soon,” she said, pulling her chair close to the cot. “Until then, try to sleep, señor.”
He let his eyes close, all his survival instincts telling him to snatch what time he could to sleep. All the same, he knew there was no way in hell he’d be able to sleep right now, not when his whole right side felt like it was on fire, and he was worried out of his mind for his partner. After a moment he felt a cool hand on his forehead, long fingers stroking his hair gently, like one might soothe a child. She was humming softly now, a tune that was hauntingly familiar, even though he was sure he’d never heard it before.
Cracking his eyes open a fraction, he saw a faraway look on her face, like she was seeing someone else entirely. And for the first time, he thought he saw tears in her eyes.