“They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity.”

― Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried


The floodlights around the hospital lit most of the pebbled rise at its back, making the ascent easier, at least initially. Above the line of glare, Ed could make out a single black figure silhouetted against the night sky. He scrambled up, bottle in hand, to the top of the rise. Diyaa turned towards him, the ever present rifle resting across his chest. In the dark Ed couldn’t see the disapproving look as the whisky sloshed in the bottle but he knew it was there.

Diyaa nodded down the slope and it took Ed a moment to make out the woman sitting by herself, slumped against an outcrop. He took a step towards her before Diyaa stopped him with a hand.

“This time is no good.” A week of hearing his accent had made the man more comprehensible, but only just. “Doctor to go home.”

“Yeah,” Ed said. Diyaa removed his hand and Ed made his way down, stumbling on the rocky terrain.

He settled next to the woman. Arms folded against the chill, he turned his face up to the impossible sky above them. Moonless, the sky revealed too many stars to make them out individually until the bright pinpricks amassed into an explosion of light splattered across the night.

But the wonder was dimmed, the dark figure at his side pulling him into the palpable sadness around her. He opened his mouth and closed it. Why had he come here? What could he say? You did everything you could. It’s not your fault. Some trite shit that had never worked for him. Don’t be so hard on yourself. What could he really do for her? What made him think he could be of any comfort? He’d known her a week after all. If Diyaa hadn’t said something he could have assumed this was normal for her after a day like she’d had.

His breath slipped out, wordless and silent into the cold. Here the chill was more than just the fall in temperature, it was the absence of the heat that permeated the day. That lack left the same void with every sunset, with only the frigid sky to fill it.

The back of her hand touched his arm and he looked to see it open and expectant. He pressed the neck of the bottle into her hand and let her pull it towards her. The lid whisked in the threads and the liquid lapped against the glass as she tipped it into her mouth. Even with only the stars to light the night he could see the glint of at least one other empty bottle at her feet.

“We have leave starting when we get back,” he began, tone hushed but the sound felt intrusive in the quiet. “My friend’s loaning me an apartment on the beach.” He turned towards the shadow next to him, the bottle in hand glinting as she lifted it again. “You could come with me.”

Desert nights had a particular stillness to them. The expanse just beyond the capacities of human sight loomed large and bleak with possibilities most wouldn’t want to consider. But it was the possibility next to him he hadn’t thought through, that he didn’t really know this woman, and she might not want him there.

He sat for a while, until it was clear she didn’t mean to break the silence with anything more than the sound of her burning through the bottle he’d brought. Muscles tensed to begin the act of standing when the back of her hand came back to his arm, the tinkling sounds of liquid on glass confirmed she was offering back the bottle.

“Yeah.” Oriel’s voice was a rasp in the dry air, her tone brought lower by the weight of the day and so many days like it. “Sounds good.”


A week before, Ed had arrived with the rest of his team on his first observation trip to Jordan. It had been a tough few weeks, working their way in and out of the various refugee camps they’d been assigned. This was the last, and arguably the worst. Technically in the no-man’s-land between Syria and Jordan, tens of thousands of asylum seekers were held in limbo by bureaucrats and safety checks deep in northern deserts.

The field hospital appeared on the horizon long before they reached it. The two large tents were no more than beige humps surrounded by layers of spidery fencing that became more formidable as their convoy approached. Beyond it several satellite tents became clear. Their camouflaged colors were unintentional, covered as they were by layers of the same dust that swirled around their vehicles.

“We have one week scheduled here, which I had to wrangle from the boys upstairs.” The head of the UN team spoke to them as they bumped along the dirt road for hours. “We have to be efficient and quiet about it. The Jordanians aren’t happy we are here and ISIS has hit this place twice in the last year. Be efficient and be quick, there’s a lot of ground to cover.”

The guards led them first to the largest tent where beds lined the walls; a few cots lengthwise down the middle creating corridors of patients the nurses moved up and down with hasty precision. The air hung heavily, undisturbed by the creeping winds of the desert, and warmed as it was by the blazing sun through the tarps. The smell of field hospitals lacked the sharp, acrid smell of western hospitals, but beneath the sweat and illness Ed could still make out the powdery, rubber smell of latex.

His boss stopped one of the nurses and spoke in better Arabic than Ed could dream of achieving, and was directed through the flaps at the far end of the tent. Their boots trampled over the sheets of plywood connecting the main tent to a smaller one. His boss reached for the flap when a scream pierced the air from inside the tent.

“Any of you assholes with medical training?” the doctor shouted, upon seeing them rush towards her. This tent resembled an operation theater the same way a child’s drawing looked like a house. The intention was clear, but the ramshackle floors, stacked supplies and dirty equipment were only the beginning. Five men lay in various positions, moaning, screaming, or deathly still. Two had made it up on cots, two more were on tarps on the floor. The man on the operating table bucked against the small nurse, who had to fling herself over him to hold him down. The doctor’s bloody hands flew through sutures as the man screamed and blood spurted as he jerked away from her.

“Dr. Evans?” Ed’s supervisor began.

“Yeah, listen,” she cut him off, “I’ve got a car full of people who decided to play chicken with a border patrol and spent most of their valuable time arguing to get them here, so unless you are helping, you are leaving.” She must have been seven feet tall to make all of them feel that small. “You,” she pointed a bloody, gloved finger at Ed’s friend Joe, “Come here and hold him down before he breaks more bones.”

Joe leapt to obey without a glance back at their supervisor. Ed took it as a sign when the man didn’t protest. “I’ve got medic training from the Marines,” Ed volunteered.

Dr. Evans whooped, “Now he decides to tell us!” She jerked her chin towards the man’s leg. “Think you can set that?” Her slippery fingers tore open another suturing kit and she set about trying to close the bleeding vessels in the man’s destroyed upper arm. Joe was staring at her wide-eyed as he held the man down as best he could.

Ed took a look at the leg, slipping into the too-small latex gloves, familiar smoothness closing on his fingers in a vice grip. “Not as well as you could but I can give it a whirl.” Ed attempted something close to confidence in long-unused skills.

“Don’t get cute, cowboy,” she said, eyes fixed on her work as her fingers flew through the stitches.

Ed pressed slightly to get a feel for the break and the man screamed, bucking against Joe and disturbing Dr. Evans as she worked. She didn’t spare him a glance. Ed took the man’s foot and held it steady before pulling it down and into alignment. The man passed out instantly. Dr. Evans finished her stitches and shouted something in Arabic to the nurse, who came over to bandage the man’s wounds.

She moved down towards the injured man’s feet, stripping and replacing her gloves as she went. A quick glance and a nod was all the feedback Ed got for the best job he thought he’d ever done. “Splint it soldier, when you’re done we got more.”

For six hours he followed her from person to person, stumbling through the Arabic and trying to remember training he’d left behind six years ago. Standing next to her over a girl with a shattered orbit and four broken fingers, Ed realized he was looking down at the top of Dr. Evans’ black hair. Impossible. Her arm brushed against his and he couldn’t help but realize how slim she was, and yet she had just performed a hip reduction on a man who was almost as big as he was. When he missed her instructions she turned and fixed him with warm brown eyes fringed with thick lashes.

“Soldier, I know you expected to be cruising around taking notes today but you gotta focus here if this girl’s going to be able to see out of that eye tomorrow.”

Ed nodded, trying to ignore the gentle slope of her cheek as it ran into the line of her chin and down her neck, disappearing beneath the large scrubs she wore.

By the time everyone was seen to, Ed felt like he’d been through Basic again. He collapsed into a plastic stacking chair that groaned under his weight. Her bloody canvas sneakers stepped into his line of sight and he felt like the angle was right this time when he looked up to her face.

“Thanks, soldier. You do good work, unlike these good for nothing—” her sentence devolved into Arabic too fast for him to follow as she redirected her attention towards one of the guards. The older man shrugged his shoulders and made a rude gesture. The doctor laughed. “I kid,” she said turning back to Ed. “Diyaa is good people, just doing his job. Heaven forbid the University springs for a second doctor instead of a robust security team.” She crouched down next to his chair, energy seemingly unsapped by the day. “Then again, it’d look bad if a doctor died instead of a few hundred patients, y’know?”

“Um, yeah” Ed replied dully. Something about her was eminently distracting and he was struggling to keep up.

“Anyway, Soldier, where’s your supervisor? I need a word.”

“Ed,” he said, by way of introduction.

“Oriel,” she replied, not missing a beat. “Supervisor?”

“Um, yeah Henry Jennings. We were supposed to—” He stopped as the topic of discussion came through the flaps bringing a cloud of dust with him.

“Good, You’re done Razavi? We are way behind schedule.”

“Mr. Jennings?” Oriel spoke up, somehow silencing a man Ed had never seen interrupted. “I’m gonna need your man here for the duration of your stay.”

“Now Dr. Evans, I know you are short staffed but I need every available—”

“I’m just going to stop you right there. I know you’ve got a lot of ground to cover and I know better than most how much there is to report on out here, but short staffed isn’t close to the situation we’ve got here. I have been the only doctor here for three months, there is no one else coming until the Jordanians increase their military presence, and I am really fucking tired. Do me a solid and take the other eight guys you’ve got to write the reports and leave me the only person with medical training between here and Amman.” Jennings mouth was still open when she finished and he was looking at her with a mixture of incredulity and respect. “Please,” she added.

Jennings put up a good fight. They don’t let just anyone run teams in the most dangerous parts of the world but even Ed could see Jennings was outmatched. He waved goodbye to his team as they pulled out towards their quarters with the Jordanian military and turned to receive instructions from the woman grinning at him from the entrance to the hospital.

Bunking arrangements were swift, and decidedly worse than what he would have gotten had he stayed with the rest of them.

“It’s not much—” she gestured at the sad little cot positioned on the larger side of her tent “—but if it makes you feel any better, you won’t be sleeping much.” Her equally abysmal bed was just through the zip-up barrier that divided the tent in two. “I’d set up the other doctor’s tent for you but we recommissioned it for a women’s unit.”

Ed nodded and turned to see her disappearing through the flap. “C’mon soldier!” he heard her call from outside and he dumped his pack in his haste to follow her.

She came to him that night. He hadn’t even considered the possibility when he’d finally collapsed in his cot worn out from the day. She climbed on top of him as his eyes opened to her blurry form silhouetted against the glow of the flood lights outside.

“Mind if I cut in?” she said, dropping her face close to his and smiling. She smelled of toothpaste and soap. She kissed him before he could answer, but he was quite familiar with that desperate passion that can only connect two people who find themselves at the ends of the world together. It was an old friend from his time in Afghanistan, where the same clawing need for companionship had informed so many ill-fated relationships in those heightened moments. But as he brought his fingers into her thick hair, he felt something else.

She ground down on him, naked underneath the oversized shirt she wore. Her hands finding his waist band and slipping under the elastic before he had time to react. His hand flew to hers just as her fingers curled around his erection, grasping her impossibly delicate wrist and pulling her touch from him. When she leaned away from her kiss in surprise he pulled her palm up to his mouth, placing a kiss on her wrist just above where his fingers held her still.

“This isn’t the way I usually do things,” he said softly, not wanting to scare her off too quickly. He should let it go this time, allow her to stay where she was and use him as she saw fit, even if it wasn’t to his taste. He tightened his grip ever so slightly.

“Well, soldier, we don’t have endless time for foreplay, so what do you say we get to it my way?”

“Sometimes taking a bit more time can be infinitely rewarding.” He took her captured hand back to place a kiss at the base of her thumb before he took the muscle between his teeth and bit down ever so slightly until her breath caught. “You might like my way.”

In the dark he could only guess at what lay behind the silence that followed. Something about her strength, her force of personality, told him he should have kept it vanilla; let her steamroll over him here and in the hospital. It was only temporary anyway.

And then she leaned over, her wrist still clasped in his hand. “Show me.”

She yelped when he leveraged himself out of the cot, taking her with him. Her legs held his waist as he dropped back down, and when her back met the soft lining of his sleeping bag his body caged hers beneath him. He never released her wrist as he reached over to his pants, sliding the canvas belt out from the loops with a soft sound menaced only by the clinking of the metal buckle. He held it up so she could see it. “If I do anything you don’t want me to, say red.” He waited for her nod. “Yellow means slow down.” He took the belt and looped one end around her wrist, then the other.

“Just make sure these are slip knots.” Her voice seemed softer, the tone less commanding despite the content. “You never know when we might have to get back to work.” Her leg ran against his, her inability to wait for him clear when she wrapped both legs around his waist and tried to pull him closer. He reached down and swatted her thigh. A gasp of surprise coupled with her grip falling away made him smile.

“I can have you out of this in under five seconds if you want me to.” He secured the end of the belt to the exposed metal rod at the top of the cot, leaving her hands resting against it just over her head. She squirmed a little but didn’t try to force him against her again. “What are the words?”

“Are you seriously giving me a pop quiz?” she jerked her hands and raised her head. “Time is precious, soldier, and so far your way is not proving its worth.”

He landed another smack on the inside of her thigh and she jumped but didn’t respond. His fingers slid up her spread legs. “I asked you a question.”

She gave him an annoyed sigh that quickly tensed to a whimper as his fingers found her wet slit. “Red to stop.” Her voice was strained as he circled her clit. “Yellow to slow down.”

“Good girl.”

His finger penetrated her and her hips came to meet his hand. He watched her face as he explored her flesh further. He saw her grit her teeth in the hazy light of the tent and decided she’d proved she could wait, if only a little. He shifted lower, his legs finding their way to the cold floor of the tent, and buried his face between her thighs.

Her legs wrapped around him even as he pinned her hips in place. It was still a battle, despite her position. He felt her wrestle with the blinds even as he tasted her arousal, feeling the push and pull of her legs as she struggled with him for control. Ed reached up, curving both hands under her knees and pulling her legs up and out. He leveraged his weight up so he could hold her, bent in half and helpless while his tongue found her slippery clit again. Her smell reminded him of deep snow despite the heat beneath his lips.

Her sounds grew, the muscles beneath his fingers tensing and shuddering as he kept up his end of the bargain. Her orgasm hit hard. He felt the groan, made deep within her chest, vibrate against his mouth. He grinned at her as he repositioned himself above her, her legs still hooked over his arms, pushed wide and up.

“Soldier,” she breathed before he brought his finger across her clit, too hard to be comfortable in her state, but not enough to cause real pain.


“In my bra.”

He released her legs and slid the large t-shirt up her body exposing her lithe torso and serviceable sports bra. Foil crackled as he ran his hands over her hidden breasts. Another time perhaps. The familiar smell of latex told a different story this time and Ed reestablished the hold on her legs.

“Holy shit,” she ground through a groan as he stretched her channel.

“Tell me if it hurts.”

Her answer was a wordless, violent shake of her head as he pressed his advantage until their hips met. The cot creaked underneath them and he started slow, moving in and out deliberately, getting to know the feel of her body.

“Fuck, come on,” she growled.

He snapped his hips forward and she gasped. “Don’t be rude.” He pushed his pubic bone against her clit and began to move in small, grinding circles against her, watching her face as she struggled to keep from insisting again. It was important, he’d tell himself later, to move things along. It wasn’t giving into her so much as practically the best choice for that moment to start riding her with force, pushing her towards another orgasm. This time he felt her come, gripping his cock as she chanted ‘yes’ over and over. Her body body bowed and tensed with the release of energy so wholly different than everything he’d seen from her that day. It lacked the frenetic quality of the way she darted from one task to the next. This was one complete thought, mind and body consumed with a singular intention he had provided.