The speedometer on the GPS blinks red.
She remembers back to when she felt the terrible, bitter hollow in her stomach when November wind bit at her face and clothes. She remembers the tracts of nauseous suspension that gnawed into her as her toes felt nothing but open air.
She is taking fast, shallow breaths, each one leaving her a little more lightheaded.
She remembers a blurry sky full of lights and planes, and the coldness of the concrete as it seeped into her feet. She can still feel the soft rasp of her dress against her painfully taught skin as it billowed in the uncaring wind. What she cannot remember was what had brought her off the ledge.
She blinks, and finally notices the halted taillights she is barreling towards.
Bullets whistled like furious hornets, punching holes through the dirt walls. One sheared past Corbin Gates’s head and snapped a long splinter of ceramic off his helmet, staggering him. He swore and sagged against a wall, his armor gouging the yellow dirt. His ears rang, and his vision blurred.
“Gates, get your head on right!” his sergeant screamed.
Corbin pushed his helmet up and saw his squad disappearing through the exit of the shack. He rushed after them, still dazed. As he emerged, a blinding light shined all around him, accompanied by the painful cacophony of battle. Then his eyes adjusted and he saw his squad piling into the back of a personnel carrier, gesturing wildly for Corbin to run.
“Gates, get in the truck!” he heard someone shout.
Corbin dashed for the vehicle as its wheels began to move. More rounds pummeled the buildings behind him, and billowing clouds of dirt and cement dust filled the air. A jagged trail of bullet holes raced after him along the walls as he sprinted for the open hatch. The vehicle began to pick up speed until it matched Corbin’s pace. For a pair of heartbeats, neither the soldier nor the vehicle could gain any ground. Then, with a final lunge, Corbin grasped the edge of the hatch and heaved himself inside as the carrier accelerated, rumbling out of the ruined town which seethed like a hive.
Mary was horrified. “They shot you in the head?” she whispered into the webcam as she saw the long, hollow scar across the surface of Corbin’s helmet.
Corbin made a face as he realized he had forgotten to take his helmet off. He unstrapped it from his chin and let it fall to the ground, out of camera view. Mary could hear it rocking back and forth on the floor. Corbin inhaled, then replied playfully, “Yeah they did. Just gave me a headache though.”
Mary wasn’t amused. A flicker of static rolled across the screen of her laptop, momentarily distorting Corbin’s face.
“They shot you in the head,” she repeated as the image resolved.
Corbin looked away from the screen. “Not really,” he murmured.
Mary stared expectantly. Corbin sighed. “Helmet, not head,” he finally said.
“Baby, you know what I meant,” Mary said. “They shot you in the head!”
Her anger came on stronger than she expected. “What would’ve happened if you were an inch to the right?”
Corbin fake-guffawed. “Then I’d be very dead right now. But I’m not, because I wasn’t, because I dodged it.”
Mary pursed her lips to hide her smile at his incongruity, but her eyes remained angry. “And how many times can you dodge it before something kills you? she demanded. “I am not going to be a single mother- I can’t- this baby needs someone more than a stranger who comes home once a tour. Or a VA-funded education because you forgot to dodge it when it mattered!”
Corbin gazed knowingly at her flushed face, then, gently, “Dodged it.”
It wasn’t funny, but Mary couldn’t help but laugh in a release of pent-up emotion that was also a baring of teeth.
Corbin shuffled to the barracks, battered and exhausted from day after day of fighting. One of the men in his squad lay sprawled over a cot, reading a magazine. The soldier scoffed when Corbin entered. “The second we get back, you’re running to find a laptop. I think you must’ve forgotten what it is we’re doing here.”
Corbin’s mouth twisted, and he said, “Lay off, Sully; I just got shot in the head.”
Corbin moved to his own cot and unfastened his armor as Sully glowered at him. Sully cocked his head as he noticed the corner of a photograph pull away from behind Corbin’s shoulder pad. Sully knew even before he saw it that it was a polaroid of Mary, and presently the photo rested precariously over the heap of Kevlar and nylon on the floor next to Corbin as he fell face-first into bed, exposing the mat of bruises and welts along his back and legs. Corbin was asleep almost instantly, but not before he had reached over and crossed another hash mark on the back of the picture, counting off the days until he went home.
Mary shut her computer with a wordless exclamation. She ran her hands through her hair and inhaled poignantly. Corbin had always been exasperating. She thought of just how many different kinds of difficult he was. She had always found his stubbornness endearing- even when she was furious, and right then she hated that he knew that.
Stressed, Mary walked down the hallway of their apartment, one hand on her belly, the other on the small of her back. She glanced sidelong into the kitchen as she passed, wishing she could still drink; she couldn’t shake the image behind her eyes of Corbin being an inch to the right. Over and over, she saw a bullet splitting into the fiber of his helmet and ending the love of her life. Mary felt sick; maybe it was a good thing she couldn’t drink. Blowing a strand of copper hair out of her eyes in what was more of a sigh than anything, she snatched her keys and slipped out of the apartment.
As Corbin’s day was ending on the other side of the world, Mary braced herself for another draining shift at the hospital. She wanted to call in sick, but she needed what money she could earn before her maternity leave kicked in; Corbin’s checks only cleared so fast from Afghanistan. The steps down to the street jostled her overburdened hips, and she grimaced. She slumped into her car, glaring at the polaroid of her and Corbin that leaned against his old ball cap on the dash. With a deep breath, she picked it up and added another hash mark to the back of it. But seeing Corbin’s face renewed her worry. She pressed her forehead to the steering wheel and groaned; she couldn’t lose anyone else.
As she pulled out, she eyed the small, faded scar that wrapped down her thumb and along the side of her wrist. She still remembered the auto accident that had killed her parents and left her broken and alone in the world. She remembered the pain that had driven her to the roof, looking down at the sleepy streets below, willing her stubborn body to take another step. But she hadn’t. And she had found Corbin.
The speedometer on her GPS blinked red.
She braked hard, biting off a curse. Horns blared, and she had to swerve up onto the curb to avoid hitting the car in front of her. A violent bump sent a painful jolt through the car. The vehicle came to rest halfway over the sidewalk. Mary’s wide eyes stared unfocusedly in shocked silence as her already quickened breathing doubled. Warm blood rushed to her face, along with tears of anxiety, and she struggled not to heave. What’s wrong with me? she thought, almost gasping.
Long, agonizing minutes passed. Gradually, the attack receded. Only once she had regained enough breath to clear her head did she notice the pronounced discomfort in her abdomen; her entire body was tense and refused to relax. She realized with stupid shock that it wasn’t just a panic attack. Then, the contractions started.