Copyright © 2012 Finn Marlowe
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
“Dane Harper!” Court called again. He’d been given the name by a frantic man in a smashed-up truck who’d waved him down on the road, a name familiar to him once upon a time, driving his sense of urgency. Today he volunteered with search and rescue, following the tornado’s path for victims, waiting for a call to say come here or go there, when usually he drove an ambulance and worked as a paramedic.
“One more time, Dane Harper. Call to me!” Holding his breath for silence, he listened. A choked cough, faint, just there…somewhere there.
The gurgle was good enough for ears attuned to locating any such sound. Court followed it to a pile of rubble and a heavy, rusty steel door lying flat in the clutter and dripping water. Yanking away a piece of wood paneling from the top of the pile, he spotted a pale hand, unmoving and lifeless in the runny muck. The heavy door covered the rest of the body.
Cautiously, he stepped down beside the hand and sank past the ankles. Kneeling in the rank mud, he bent and peered under the door. In the small crack between the ground and the door, he could see the rest of Dane’s body. Forget any tales of superhuman strength. He could never lift the door by himself. He could barely manage to raise one corner alone.
“Over here!” he hollered. “I found him! Over here!” Wriggling the rest of the way into the crevice was difficult even with the slippery mud easing his passage. He used a splintered piece of wood to get a better purchase for his foot. Lubricated by the slime, he slid deeper.
“You found him?” a voice called. Leo something-or-other, the man’s boss, suddenly appeared at his shoulder. “Is he dead?”
“No, I don’t think so.” Sliding back out of the crack, he gestured at the door. “I can’t lift it alone. Take an edge and help me!”
So commanded, the man obeyed, fortunately being one of those people who sharpened to steel in a crisis. His glasses hung slightly askew, and the deep purple contusion on his forehead needed to be checked. Between the two of them, they summoned enough strength to lift the door and heave it onto the crumbling wall, out of the way. Both men slid in the muck, and the sharp metal sliced Leo’s bare fingers.
“Oh God. Dane,” the man cried. “Help him. Do something. Please do something!”
“Get help,” Court snapped, not unkindly, just briskly. “Find my partner. Tell him to bring the kit and call for an ambulance with advanced life support.” Leo was beginning to panic. Having seen it all before, Court recognized the signs. Better to give Leo a task while the glue held. “Go now, man. I’ll help him, don’t worry. But I need my kit, and he needs an ambulance. Hurry!”
Leo finally responded, straightening his spine. The three of them had split up while they searched, and Rick, the search-and-rescue partner he’d met for the first time today, was nowhere to be seen. With a dirty, bleeding hand, Leo repositioned his glasses on his nose and set off at a trot.
Lowering his big body down into the cold muck again, Court pulled off his glove and reached for the cold white hand to assess vitals. One second revealed bad news—pulse racing, breathing little more than weak pants. Blood leaked from the man’s mouth and dribbled down his neck. If the man had a crush injury, the blood told Court nothing, and if there was more of it, the brackish muck coating him like a shell hid it.
As Court checked his patient for injuries, he said his name repeatedly, willing him back to consciousness and willing himself to calm. Did Dane have an open airway? That door had been incredibly heavy. Good steel. Though unconscious, his eyelids flickered, and he moaned in pain. For the moment, Court convinced himself that the gooey mud held his neck in proper alignment, and without supplies, it was all he had.
Moving on in his assessment, he made it only to step two: breathing. Clearly, that was the major problem. Satisfied that Dane’s legs had not been too badly crushed, he focused on his chest, unzipping his jacket and using his pocketknife to slit the front of the man’s T-shirt open to reveal a devastating injury. Smashed bones beneath a vivid red scrape, the bloodiest part the exact size and shape of the door’s handle, a clear imprint pressed into flesh and bone, just left of the sternum. The protruding metal handle had crushed Dane’s ribs and likely a section of his sternum as well.
A flail segment was a medical emergency of the deadliest kind. If three or more pieces of rib broke loose from the rib cage and floated freely, it could be lethal. Untreated, Dane would die. Court had seen lots of these injuries where he’d recently been. With his trained eye, he could see the segment moving separately from the rest of Dane’s chest, creating an imbalance of the pressure inside the lung. Dane struggled for every breath.
Sunlight broke through a hole in the storm clouds at that moment, the filtered light enough to illuminate the man underneath Court’s deftly moving hands. Dane was dying. There was no color left in his skin, and his lips took on a bluish cast along with the area around his nostrils. With the heavy door gone, blood flowed more freely out of his mouth, foamy and full of air from a punctured or collapsed lung. A pneumothorax, his training told him, and another medical emergency. The man was drowning in blood and trapped air, his body unable to draw a breath or make use of what it sucked in.
Splaying his fingers wide, Court held the flail segment together, allowing his patient to suck in a deeper mouthful of air. Not that it mattered; under his hand, he could feel Dane’s heart failing, sense the frantic beats. It wasn’t so much the size of the injury here, which was big enough, but like real estate, it was all location, location, location.
And there Court sat, impotent without his medical kit or ambulance. “Where the hell are you!” he yelled. Only the quiet calm in the storm’s aftermath answered.
Too far away, his voice of experience told him. And far too late.
Medical facts ran through his head. Flail chest had a mortality rate up to forty percent for severe cases, and if it was accompanied by a pneumothorax, the rate doubled. He could do the math. And that math didn’t include whatever other injuries Dane might have.
Rain soaked them both through to the skin. The little patch of sunlight had clouded over except for a single ray that seemed to want to linger on the dying man’s face. Such a handsome face it was too. What a shame.
Court knew what he had to do.
Suffering. His patient was suffering. And he didn’t like them to suffer. Not ever.
There was no hope for Dane—none. Only death waited to claim him, not life.
Why should he suffer?
I can ease his suffering.
With a glance back over his shoulder, Court confirmed his lost partner was nowhere to be seen. For only a few more minutes, one minute, seconds maybe, he was…alone. To make sure, he called out again. Only the rain answered.
Every line of his still face and every breath not taken told him Dane’s life was draining away. There was no one to see; they were alone. It was the right thing to do. There was no evil in it. Was there?
Yes—no? Yes. Enough. He’d had this argument with himself before, and there was no time to have it again. Death came on swift wings—he heard them beating inside his head.
With a quick flick of his knife, he cut away the rest of the shirt and bared the man’s torso and toned muscles to the cold wind, a fine chest marred by ugly scratches and a massive, crimson hole where bone had been crushed, the pieces working at odds with each other, a place where a healthy young heart should be beating and wasn’t. Snapping the blade shut, he shoved it back in his pocket.
There would be no more suffering. Not on his shift.
I’ll fix this. Damned if I won’t.
Taking a single, calming breath to gather his nerve, Court laid his left hand on the crushed bones and damaged flesh and set his right hand on the young man’s face, a caress from the living to the dying. Touching gently, he ran his thumb across the cold, blue-tinged lips. The panting breaths were slowing, fading, finding the end. The ray of sunshine seemed to kiss Dane’s cheek, lingering in its good-bye, and something about it stole Court’s breath away. He cupped the pale, whisker-stubbled jaw in his big, warm hand.
And wished with all his heart.