Above All Else, Guard Your Heart
“I hate it when they make us do this at night,” Alexander Bennett said to his passenger, Paul Green, as their Humvee bounded down the dirt road. The convoy travelled deep in Iraq in a line of five Humvees. “I mean, I understand why, but it doesn’t make me feel any better.”
“I don’t really think there is a good time for this,” Green said, watching for any sign of movement near them. Their vehicle was the second in a line of five. “However, Captain said we had to move. When we’re given orders, we go. It’s a little easier for us to operate in the cover of darkness,” he said, tapping the night-vision goggles on his helmet. “During the day, you might as well paint a target on us.”
“Are you scared, Bennett?” Charles teased. He was in the back with Hernandez and Adams, who chuckled in response.
“Not necessarily. While I realize there’s strength in numbers, a friend of mine got blown to bits two weeks ago on a night mission. Driving around at night, convoy or not, really has me on edge.”
“Don’t let Cap hear you say that,” Charles warned.
“He’ll make you do extra night duty if he thinks you’re scared,” Hernandez said, reminding him of the lecture they received prior to their takeoff from Camp Pendleton almost nine months ago.
“Yeah, he’s sadistic like that,” Adams pointed out. “Do you think he’s there this time?” Charles asked.
Green shrugged. “Intel says he is.”
“Is the intel good?”
“Let’s hope so, or this will be a colossal waste of time,” Adams said. “Hey, Green? How’s your girl?”
“I heard from Jenny the other day,” Green said, with a boyish grin.
“Oh yeah?” Bennett glanced over at him, surprised. “Why didn’t you tell me? How’s she doing?”
“Great! She’s finally over the morning sickness. She sent me a pic,” he said, taking his helmet off. Pulling the photo from his helmet, he held it up for Bennett to see before passing it to the back of the vehicle for the others. In the green hue of the vehicle lights, they saw a very pregnant Jenny Green.
“She’s a beaut!” Hernandez commented, handing it to Adams.
“Definitely a looker!” Adams said, handing it back to Green. “Does she have a sister?”
“No.” Green chuckled, accepting the photo back. Then, turning to Bennett, he said, “She did say she has a friend she wants to introduce you to when we get back next month.”
“Really?” Bennett asked, heart skipping a beat in excitement.
“Yep. She’s got great taste in helping hook people up,” Green said, returning the photo to his helmet. As he replaced the helmet back on his head, he explained, “She’s helped at least –”
In a flash of blinding light, an explosion rocked the ground under their vehicle. With the crushing metal, yelling and screaming of the guys, and the roar of the blast, it was difficult to distinguish any sound. The ringing in Bennett’s ears overpowered any other noise.
...What seemed like minutes, was only a few precious seconds. To him, it could have been an eternity as memories from Bennett’s life flashed through his mind. There was his first ten-speed bike he got for his tenth birthday present. It was a top of the line red one with thin white stripes. Then, there was his first date with Erica when he was fifteen. She was also his first girlfriend. Erica was only about 5’3”, but the sweetest girl he knew.
Bennett felt his body leave the seat, throwing him all over his position in the cab. The Humvee flipped, landing on the roof. As his arm was trapped in the collapsed roof, he felt the metal carve into his wrist before blood from his wrist created a warm river down his arm.
...The next memory was of the first touchdown he scored in a varsity game as receiver at seventeen. It was the first of many in his football career. Then, there was his high school prom with Erica as his date. Unfortunately, it was also their last date, because that night she found out he joined the Marines and broke up with him. She insisted that she wasn’t cut out to be a military spouse. This memory was closely followed by his high school graduation. His parents beamed as they took plenty of photographs to document the occasion.
The vehicle went for the second roll. The Humvee landed on the driver’s side, pinning his legs. He felt metal slice his body in multiple areas as the front of the truck collapsed around him.
...His graduation from boot camp was another proud moment for him, as well as one of the worst things he ever went through up to that point. The brutality strengthened him, but also took a toll on him. He would wake up before the sun came up, and wasn’t allowed to go to bed until well after sunset. The drill sergeants would work them night an day, until they were satisfied that the recruits were ready. Then came his graduation from technical school, which was the same day he was assigned to a unit. Being officially assigned to the unit was an exciting day in his life. Within that unit, he found fellowship, learned valuable lessons, and learned to work as a team. On that unit, he found his family. The next memory was standing in line with his unit, loading into the C130 for Iraq. While everyone’s nerves were completely on edge, they knew what they had to do and why. This was what they signed up for. As he took his seat among his fellow military members, he looked around with pride. He thought sure at that moment, if they tested his blood, it would be red, white, and blue. He knew he was where he was supposed to be. He was a patriot. The last memory he saw, was a conversation with Doc, Green, Hernandez, Adams, and Charles, where they were laughing while playing poker a few nights ago.
Another flip crushed the sides of the vehicle into him. His body jolted as the vehicle rotated again, landing on Bennett’s side of the truck. It rocked back and forth before coming to rest fifty yards from its original position.
As much as he tried to focus on any one memory, the intense pain jetting from his legs and arm, along with his lack of oxygen, and the constant ringing in his ears, prevented him from zeroing in on only one. When the concussion wave passed through Bennett, it felt like a vacuum sucked out all the air around him. He had a difficult time catching any breath of air. Any air he did inhale was laced with the taste of dirt, gunpowder, and blood.
Bennett’s arm hung in the air, wrapped in a piece of metal from the roof. Unable to release it, he did his best to see around the sheet of roof that separated him from his best friend, Sergeant Paul Green.
When the truck stopped moving, the chaos that suddenly erupted sent shockwaves through Bennett as he did his best to process what was going on around him. “Green!” he shouted for his friend. Barely hearing his own voice, he shouted several more times. It sounded like an echo to him, but he continued to shout for his friend. The sound of gunfire flew around them at an alarming pace. Bennett was desperate to hear an answer from Green...really from anyone at that point. “Hernandez! Adams! Charles! Green! Anybody!”
“I’m here,” Adam’s groaned. “My leg is trapped. Hernandez is unconscious. I already checked on Charles. He’s gone.”
“C-can you see Green?”
Tugging the portion of the roof that separated him from the others side of the cab with his free hand, he could barely move it to see the starry night sky through the thick, black smoke. Shouting again in a voice that was barely audible to his own ears, he was desperate to find any of them, but especially his best friend. “Green!”
After a moment, unable to move from his captured position, he moaned and groaned in pain, joining the faint chorus of Adams and Hernandez in the back. When the reality of what his body experienced hit him, he rested his head back, doing his best to get the pain under control. Hearing the shouts and yells of the fellow members of his unit from the other Humvees was a relief. They not only scrambled to get to their men, but also returned fire to the enemy who surrounded them. He couldn’t fully comprehend, nor could he hear what they were saying over the ringing. The blasted ringing was getting to him.
“Bennett, man, don’t move,” Pierce, his Captain, said, sticking his head through where the windshield used to be.
“Green?” Bennett asked. He sounded weak to himself. “Barlow’s with him.”
“Charles is gone. Adams and Hernandez are hurt.”
“I need you to focus on my voice, Bennett,” Pierce said, scaring himself at how calm he was despite the pandemonium that besieged the convoy. Ducking a few bullets that strayed in their direction before ricocheting off the vehicle, he kept low as he yelled to Bennett, “They’ve called for help. They’re on the way. Just focus on me. There’s a lot of blood on you, so I want to make sure you stay with me.”
“IED. They created a choke point. We’re returning fire, but we’re waiting on air support before we go after them. We don’t know who all is out there.”
“The other vehicles?”
“Some are still searching the wreckage, while others are keeping the enemy at bay.”
Hearing gunfire in the distance, mixed with the shouts of other men, Bennett begged, “Don’t leave me, Cap.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it. Adams, are you and Hernandez okay back there?”
“Think my leg’s broke, but other than that, I’m just shaken up...and cold,” Adam’s voice responded from the darkness. “Hernandez is barely conscious. I don’t want to move him.”
“Don’t. Where’s Charles?”
“He was right behind Green,” was his only response. From where Adams was, he could clearly see the empty space where the passenger seat used to be.
Pierce shook his head at the devastation around him, at a loss for words. Seeing movement to his left, he noticed the man wore the gear of their enemy. He whipped out his gun and fired off three rounds. When the body dropped to the ground motionless, Pierce looked to the sky, and yelled, “Can we catch a break here?”
“I can’t feel my legs,” Bennett moaned, bringing Pierce back to him.
“One of mine’s on fire,” Pierce said, glancing at his own leg, which had tourniquet strapped just above where a piece of shrapnel impaled his thigh.
“I-I can’t breathe, and I-I think I’m going to be sick.”
“No. Please don’t do that. We’ve got enough going on.” Taking another good look around, Pierce placed his gun on his lap before resting his hands on either side of Bennett’s face, forcing him to look at him. “You need to focus on me, and work on slowing your breaths.” Glancing up at Bennett’s arm, he shook his head. The amount of blood soaking Bennett’s clothing deeply concerned him. He feared what Bennett’s arm would look like once the compression was released. He wasn’t sure that Bennett would make it out of this one alive.
“Green’s wife is pregnant. Is he okay? He needs to get back to Jenny. Sh-she’s due any day. He needs to get back to her before their baby is born.”
“Focus on me, Bennett. I need you to worry about yourself. You’re –” Pierce swore again as more gunfire neared their position. Aiming into the darkness, he emptied his weapon. After a moment, the gunfire abruptly ceased. Reloading his gun, he watched in the distance at someone maneuvering through the vehicles, to see Jerrod coming toward them. Pierce turned back to Bennett, “Doc’s coming. Just focus on me. Okay?”
“I’m trying, Cap. I can’t feel...Ahhhhhh!” He shrieked when his arm dropped from its metal encasement, doused in blood. As it landed on his chest, he clearly saw that his hand was missing from just below his wrist...and Bennett completely lost it!
“Just breathe, Bennett!” Pierce yelled over Bennett’s shrieks and shouts. “Focus on me, Marine!”
Wide-eyed and frantic, Bennett shouted, “Cap! My arm! Where’s my hand? Where’s Doc? Why isn’t he here yet? What do I do? Help me! Find my hand and put it back! What do I do? Do something! Help me!”
“Bennett! Focus on my voice!” Pierce shouted.
“It’s okay. I’m here, Cap,” Jerrod said, running up to the truck, sliding in front of Pierce. “How bad?”
“Make him comfortable,” was all Captain Pierce said. “As for the back, Charles is already gone. Adams has a broken leg. And Hernandez is semi-conscious, but –”
“Adams! Does Hernandez have a pulse?” Jerrod called to Adams, cutting Pierce off while applying a tourniquet to Bennett’s arm in an attempt to slow the bleeding. By the amount of blood loss already, he wasn’t sure how much more time Bennett had, but he would fight for him.
“Just a minute,” Adams said. After feeling the pulse in Hernandez’s neck, he confirmed, “Yes. It’s weak, though. He’s going in and out of consciousness.”
“Which is he right now?”
“Okay. Don’t move him.”
“I won’t. Hey, Doc?”
“I’m stuck back here. I’m not getting out without help. The seat has crushed my leg. Pretty sure it’s broken.”
“I’m sure. Just do me a favor and...Bennett?” Jerrod asked, glancing down to Bennett, who closed his eyes. “Bennett? Bennett, can you hear me?” he asked, looking into Bennett’s eyes with a penlight.
Shaking his head to wake back up, Bennett glanced down at his arm and started panicking again. “M-my arm! Doc, it’s gone!” he shouted, wild-eyed. “Where’d my hand go? You need to find it and put it back! Help me! Ahh! It feels like it’s on fire!”
“I need you to calm down,” Jerrod said, doing his best to get further into the vehicle to find out the condition of Bennett’s legs. By the looks of the vehicle, unless there was a pocket open for Bennett’s legs, he feared the worst. He also needed to assess as to how much it would take to get him released.
“My-my legs! My hand! Help me, doc! I’m going to die! I don’t want to die! You need to help me!”
“You need to calm down, Marine!” Jerrod ordered. Hearing helicopters in the distance, he said, “The cavalry’s coming. I need you to stay with me, okay?”
“I don’t know what to do! My hand! Look at my hand, Doc!” he said again, holding it up in the air. “It feels like it’s on fire! Please put it back on! Help me, Doc! I don’t want to die!”
“Calm down,” Jerrod gently said.
“My legs! There’s pain, but I can’t move them.”
Trying not to get hit by the hysterical Bennett, Jerrod wiggled back out of the Humvee. “Relax,” Jerrod coaxed, giving him a shot of Morphine for the pain, and Valium to calm him.
“You can do this. Think of home. Think of Buck, your puppy back home. He’s waiting for you,” Jerrod said, shaking his head as he kept count of the beats of Bennett’s pulse for five seconds. He counted for five, and then multiplied it by twelve to get the approximate pulse rate. Due to multiple patients, he didn’t have time to count the full ten seconds for a more accurate heart rate.
“He-he’s with my sister and her family.”
“Good. That’s a good place for him. There ya go,” Jerrod encouraged, feeling Bennett’s pulse slow. He didn’t want it to go too slow, but as fast as it was when he reached him, he was sure Bennett would bleed out before he could be extricated from the vehicle. “Buck’s waiting for you. Think about playing with him in your backyard. You need to focus on something good. Where was Buck’s favorite place to go? Where did he like you to take him? Somewhere you both relaxed,” Jerrod said as he bandaged Bennett’s arm.
“He loves the beach, like I do.”
“Think of the beach,” Jerrod said, putting his hand to check the pulse on Bennett’s neck to keep track while he searched the skies for reinforcements. Seeing the helicopters nearing their position, he turned back to Bennett and said, “Think of the waves. Imagine sitting there on the beach in the bright sunshine. I’m sure you threw the ball for Buck to chase?”
“Close your eyes and pretend to toss the ball for Buck on the beach. Can you do that?”
“Good. Stay there for me while we work on getting you out of here,” Jerrod said, feeling Bennett’s heart rate beginning to calm.
Bennett nodded as he closed his eyes. “Oh. Okay.”
Jerrod kept his fingers resting on the pulse of Bennett’s neck. “We need to get him out of here,” Jerrod said in a low voice to Pierce. “Choppers are here. He needs to be the first one out if he is to have a remote chance of getting through this. I also need to get to the others in the back as soon as possible.”
“I’ll go grab a couple other guys.”
“With what? You can’t walk on that.” Jerrod pointed out. “I don’t even know how you got all the way over here in the shape you’re in,” he said, before he swore under his breath. “Seriously, I’m surprised you haven’t bled out. Where’s your common sense?”
“Watch it, Lucas!” Pierce snapped. Then he shouted out, into the darkness, “Murphy! Garcia! Grab a couple guys and get over here! We have to get these guys out!”
In an instant, there were six guys at their side. Together, they extricated Bennett carefully from the truck while the gunfire slowed around them. A couple men chased after the stragglers so the others would be safe. Meanwhile, after they got Bennett out, they headed inside the vehicle to get to the others.
Two helicopters landed, while two others hovered in the air, keeping an eye overhead. They fired where they would see flashes from gunfire, and knew they weren’t friendlies.
“Over here!” Jerrod shouted as the two Corpsmen got out of the helicopters.
“What do we have?” asked one of the Corpsman, running up to what was left of the mangled Humvee.
“His left leg is crushed, and the right arm is missing about the mid-radius and ulna,” Jerrod said quietly to the Corpsman, as he finished bandaging Bennett’s arm. “He hasn’t lost consciousness, but he’s not all there either. He’s lost a lot of blood. He also keeps asking about his partner, Green. Green is DOA. There’s another DOA in the back, Charles, along with at least one unconscious, and one with a broken leg. They’re working on getting the others out.”
Stunned for a moment, the Corpsman only nodded in response. “You take him. I’ll take care of the others,” the Corpsman told Jerrod. He then went over to where they pulled the others from the vehicle to start on them, while Jerrod stayed with Bennett.
After they loaded him onto a stretcher, Jerrod ran with them to the helicopter. He made mental notes on all he would tell the Corpsman in regards to Bennett’s condition once they landed. As he started an IV on Bennett, he looked up to see a couple guys load a covered body on a stretcher next to Bennett in a body bag.
“Who is that?” Bennett asked.
“Green,” one of the men said, not thinking.
“Green! Paul!” Bennett panicked. Trying to grab at the bag, Bennett yelled, “That’s Paul Green! What happened to him? Why is he in there? They only do that if they’re dead. You have to help him, Doc. He can’t be dead. He needs to see his baby. Jenny’s due any day. Please help him, Doc!”
“Great!” Jerrod groaned, giving up as he injected another dose of morphine into Bennett. He wouldn’t be able to do anything in the state Bennett was in until he was calm. If the pain and the status of his hand and legs weren’t enough to freak him out, the fact that his best friend laid dead right next to him was the final straw that through him over the edge. “Calm down, Bennett. I need you to calm down now!”
While he waited for the morphine to kick in, amongst Bennett’s shouts of pain, agony, and panic about Green, Jerrod feverishly worked on getting the blood flow from Bennett’s arm back under control before moving back to care for his legs.
After a moment, as another Corpsman neared the helicopter with Adams, Bennett’s body suddenly went limp and the screaming abruptly stopped. Jerrod jerked his head up toward Bennett, to see his eyes wide open with a faraway look to them. Other than that, there was no muscle movement. “No-no-no-no-no-no-no-Noooo!” Jerrod shouted, scampering toward the head of the stretcher. “No! You come back here!” he yelled, feeling the side of Bennett’s neck for a pulse with his glove-covered, blood-soaked hand. “Bennett! You cannot die on me! I’ve worked too hard!” He shouted.
“Noooo!” Jerrod yelled, sitting straight up in the back seat of his Jeep. Sweat poured off his face as he tried to catch his breath, almost hyperventilating. The trio of Nico, Jerrod, and Jon were deep in the Outback of Australia, on a dirt road several hours outside of Alice Springs in the middle of the night. They were en route back to the others in the Tanami Desert with the Jeeps.
Nico snapped to attention in his Jeep, as it was his turn to keep watch. Running over to Jerrod’s Jeep, grabbing his face so he would look at him, Nico said, “It’s all right, mate. You’re safe. You’re not there anymore.”
“But, he –”
“I have a pretty good idea what happened t’ him, but I need you to snap out of it before you wake –”
“I’m up,” Jon said, coming over to the Jeep, cutting Nico off. “Don’t worry about me,” he said, sitting in the driver’s seat. “Worry about him. You don’t want to know how he’s feeling,” he said. Sometimes Jon’s gift of feeling what others felt was a curse, and sometimes it was a blessing. In this instance, it was a curse. If Jerrod didn’t calm down, there would be no way for Jon to get any sleep, and Jon only got to sleep an hour ago, after being up for over twenty-four hours.
“No, I don’t, and nor do I want to,” Nico acknowledged before he turned back to Jerrod. “Jerrod, mate, come on. Who am I?”
“I...I...” Jerrod shook his head.
“Where are you?” Nico pressed.
Looking around for a moment in a daze, he shook his head again.
“Jerrod Lucas!” Nico shouted. “Look at me, mate! Who am I?”
“I don’t...” He shook his head again.
“Let me take a crack at it,” Jon offered.
Nico shook his head. “I dunno.”
“Which one of us literally knows how he’s feeling?” Jon asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Too true,” Nico agreed, switching places with Jon.
Taking his hand, Jon knelt on the floor of the backseat of the Jeep. Positioning himself in front of Jerrod, Jon calmly said, “Jerrod, I’m Jon English. You’re in the Outback of Australia, not in Iraq. Can you see me?”
Jerrod just looked at him blankly.
“Let me try this another way,” Jon said, getting a little closer. “Jerrod, you did your best,” he encouraged, praying for the words to come from the Spirit. “You helped those you could before returning to base. You then went into the bathroom and washed the blood from your hands, safe, out of the nightmare you just experienced.”
“How do you –?”
“Shh!” Jon cut Nico off. Turning back to Jerrod, he continued, “After you washed your hands, you collapsed on your cot, and drifted off to sleep. That was years ago. Now you’re in the Outback of Australia with Jon English and Nico Sullivan. Do you know who we are?”
Looking at Jon and Nico, Jerrod slowly shook his head, before he nodded after a moment. Still in a bit of a daze, he looked around at their surroundings. Turning back to them, he let out a slow breath of air and asked, “What happened?”
“You had a night terror,” Jon said, moving back to the driver’s seat, giving Jerrod some space. “Do you know where you are?”
“Sort of. No. Not really. Give me a few,” he mumbled, looking around the landscape, hoping to get his bearings.
“Want some water?” Nico offered.
After getting him a bottle of water, Nico leaned on the Jeep up next to Jerrod’s head, crossing his arms. Over his shoulder, he told Jon, “Go back to sleep. I got this.”
“Thanks,” Jon muttered, shuffling sleepily back to his Jeep, grateful they got Jerrod’s emotions landed for the moment.
“All right, mate,” Nico said, turning back to Jerrod. “Is it always that bad?”
“Sometimes it’s worse.”
“Who was Bennett?” Nico asked. When Jerrod looked at him wide-eyed, Nico asked, “Did he live?”
Slowly shaking his head no, not taking his eyes of Nico, Jerrod admitted, “His name was Alexander Bennett. His injuries and blood loss were too much. I couldn’t save him. He lost part of his arm in the blast, and his legs were crushed. How did you know his name?”
“You shouted it in your sleep. Look, mate, you’re not God. You can’t work miracles. You’re only human.”
“His best friend, Paul Green, died in the blast. Green’s wife was pregnant at the time – due any day. I found out later she had a boy, and named him Paul Alexander Green, after the two of them. Bennett was in a body bag right next to Green. He didn’t know it was Green, until one of the guys said his name, and then Bennett completely lost it. There was no bringing him back from that one.”
“I’ll bet,” Nico said, trying to process how he would feel.
“You have no idea. We were on a mission to take out one of the leaders at the time. We had intel of his position, and had to move right away. It couldn’t wait until daylight. We knew it was a risk, but letting him get away again, was a risk we weren’t willing to gamble. I was in the Humvee behind them. A couple more seconds and I would have been in Green’s position. There were five of ours killed on that day,” Jerrod said, holding his stomach, as he curled up in the seat.
“When the smoke cleared, it was a mangled mess. Captain Pierce had a lacerated leg, but he crawled off to their vehicle, while a bunch of us did our best to take cover from the weapons fire that immediately ensued, and returned fire. We had to take out those firing on us before we could even think of getting to the wounded.”
“When it slowed enough, the others sent me to Bennett’s Humvee. By the time I got there, Bennett was already losing it. He already knew he lost part of his arm,” Jerrod said using his hand to show where Bennett’s arm was taken off, “and his legs were crushed from here down. I have no idea how the guys got him out of there, but they did it quickly enough for me to give Bennett a chance. When the choppers landed, I went with Bennett. He was the worst one there. Green and Charles were already dead. Adams’ leg was crushed. He just thought it was broken, but he ended up losing part of it. We lost Hernandez and another one in the firefight. It was a cluster –”
“I got it,” Nico said, cutting him off.
“I played poker with all of them just the night before. I knew them. All of them. As a Doc, you don’t just come in at the last minute. You are part of their unit...for better or worse.”
“I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
“If it was only the one instance, I would probably be able to process it, but it wasn’t. We were pretty much on edge twenty-four hours a day for seven days a week for months on end. What I don’t get is when we live like that, and then return, or get out of the military, civilians just expect us to get over it,” he said, shaking his head. “There’s no getting over watching good men die. There’s no getting over living with the threat of being blown up or shot at any time. They even hid bombs in stuffed animals or toys that the kids carried. Can you believe they sent kids in to their deaths just to blow us up? And we were trying to help them!” Taking a deep sigh, Jerrod looked up at the vast amount of stars that filled the sky. He was amazed at how many more were visible away from the lights of the city. He took a deep, cleansing breath in hopes of clearing his mind. “That’s amazing,” he said, hoping to get lost in the stars.
Deciding that sidetracking Jerrod’s train of thought would be the best approach at helping him, Nico said, “That’s what happens when you’re out of the city. You can see all of God’s creation in its splendor. When we’re on the station, nighttime is actually my favorite time of the day. It’s cool, and there are a billion stars up there. When you’re in the city, you can’t see them as well, but they’re always up there.”
“I feel like my mind’s all over the place,” Jerrod said.
“That’s understandable. Look, you got five hours of sleep. You can try for another hour, or you and I can talk some more?” Nico offered. “We take off in a couple hours. I may give Jon a bit more time to sleep since his sleep was interrupted.”
“Yeah, I’ll have to apologize to him when he wakes.”
“No, you don’t,” Jon called from his Jeep. “Just relax so I can get back to sleep.”
Nico and Jerrod laughed, as they admired God’s majesty above, lost in conversation, while Jon drifted back to sleep.
* * *
“Mum!” Rachel grinned. Tears instantly stung her eyes when Kit walked into the house, dragging her suitcase behind her.
Upon seeing her daughter on the couch, Kit dropped her suitcase and coat at the door, and ran over to her. Gently sitting on the couch next to Rachel, Kit wrapped her arms around Rachel’s neck and hugged her tightly.
“Mum...can’t...breathe!” Rachel finally said.
“I’m sorry,” Kit said, pulling back, wiping the tears out of her eyes before she wiped the few tears on Rachel’s cheek away as well. “I just missed you so much. To hear you had been hurt made my heart drop into my stomach. Knowing Angel’s still in danger, and that Josh is still out there in possible danger as well, terrifies me. I was so relieved when your Dad told me you were here. And then hearing your voice...” Kit’s voice trailed as Rachel cried a little harder. “It’s okay, Rach. Really. I’m here. I did bring someone with me, though. She wouldn’t let me leave without her,” Kit said, gesturing toward the door.
When Rachel saw Leah, she couldn’t hold the tears back anymore, and they turned into sobs as Leah ran over to her. Getting on her knees next to the couch, Leah grabbed her twin sister without shame or embarrassment, and they both burst out in tears of joy at being reunited.
“There are two of them?” Kai asked with his thick Irish accent, eyes wide and mouth gaping. He and Cori were standing in the doorway of the basement, with Charm (Cori’s seeing eye dog) leaning on Cori’s leg.
“Shut your mouth,” Cori whispered.
“How’d you know my jaw was dropped?” Kai asked, glancing at her sideways, as he stood there with his arms crossed. “You’re blind.”
“Probably because I know you. You don’t have to have sight to know that you’ve seen a gorgeous girl...let alone two a’ them. I assume by your reaction that they’re identical?”
“Yes. Seriously! How are there two a’ them?”
Katia walked over to Kai, and using two of her fingers, she pushed up his chin, shutting his mouth. “Not nice to stare,” she pointed out, her Russian accent still thick within her English.
“Way to go, Katia,” Cori said with a grin.
“Seriously! How did all the good genes end up in one family?” Kai asked. “The girls are gorgeous, and there are two of them. Delaney thinks Josh is hot, and I know there are two of him too. I’ve seen them. Seeing Nico, and now Kit? It makes perfect sense. Even with as old as she is, she’s still pretty.”
“Hush!” Cori reprimanded him.
Giggling, Katia moved to the opposite side of the doorway from Kai and Cori, leaning against the wall. “You are funny, Kai.”
“Glad you think so, but I’m serious!” Kai defended himself.
“Beauty is only on the outside,” Katia reminded him.
“And, from what I’ve seen of Rachel, she’s just as pretty on the inside,” Kai pointed out.
Suddenly, the group heard a scream from upstairs. “Liliya!” Katia breathed out, before bolting up the stairs to her sister.
“I’m afraid it’s been this way every few hours since she got here,” Casey explained when Kit gave her a questioning look. “I want to talk with her, but I really need her to get some decent sleep first. Unfortunately, she’s not getting any.”
“Mind if I speak with her? It’s been almost a year since they’ve seen each other, so I’ll let these two get reacquainted,” she said, gesturing toward Rachel and Leah, who finally let each other go enough to make sure they were really looking at each other. When Casey nodded, Kit stood and asked, “Would you please boil some water for a tea for her. Pete makes a tea that helps one sleep, and he sent me with a few baggies. She won’t be able to fight it.”
“Sounds good,” Casey agreed. “Her room is upstairs. At the top of the stairs, go left. It’s the second room on the right,” Casey explained. “In the meantime, I’ll boil the water and get breakfast for these two, so we can get homeschool started,” she said, ushering Allie and Callie to the kitchen.
Allie and Callie were on another couch with Charlie, listening to a story Charlie was telling when Casey went to pick up Kit and Leah. Charlie followed Casey and the girls into the kitchen to lend a hand.
“Too many twins,” Kai said, shaking his head as he finally turned to go back down the stairs. He followed Cori and Charm, leaving Leah and Rachel alone in the living room to catch up privately.
* * *
“Knock, knock,” Kit said, sticking her head in the doorway, to see tears slowly crawling down Katia’s cheeks as she held Liliya. Liliya was crying and rocking in place, her face pale.
“Does she speak English?” Kit asked, knowing they were from Russia.
“Yes. We both do.” Katia nodded, her heart breaking for her sister. Wiping the few tears that escaped, Katia curiously watched every move Kit made.
“If we get anymore tears in this house, we’re going to need a mop,” Kit said with a smile as she walked into the room. Taking the chair next to the bed, she gave Liliya some space to breathe. “Your name is Liliya?”
Liliya sniffed, wiping her cheeks. “Yes.”
Shaking her hand, Kit said, “Hi. I’m Kit. I’m Rachel’s mom.”
“You do not sound like her. Little different,” Katia pointed out, with her head cocked to the side, studying her.
“That’s because I was born and raised in America. I didn’t live in Australia until I was in my twenties. While I do have somewhat of an Australian accent, it’s more of a southern American accent. You tend to pick up certain parts of speech when you move to a different place.”
“Yes. This happens,” Katia agreed.
Moving her chair closer to the bed, Kit retook her seat. Leaning forward, with her elbows on her knees and her hands together, she said, “Liliya, I understand you’ve had quite an experience.” Liliya only nodded in response. Reaching up, Kit went to move part of Liliya’s blond hair out of her face. Initially, Liliya pulled away, but then she allowed Kit to touch her. “There ya go, sweetheart.” Kit smiled warmly. “May I sit on the bed with you?”
Liliya nodded. She and Katia moved to make room for Kit, as Kit moved onto the side of the bed.
“Casey tells me that you’ve had some trouble sleeping?” Kit asked.
“Yes. Very scared,” Liliya admitted, as she sat there looking like a terrified animal, cowering on the bed.
“You know you’re safe, right? The man who took you is probably locked away in some freezer in Siberia,” Kit explained, praying Sergei was getting his due justice in prison for what he did not only to Liliya, Angel, and Elena, but also to the other girls...or would be as soon as he got deported back to Russia. “Or he will be as soon as the Russian authorities get their hands on him.”
While Katia smiled at that, Liliya didn’t. Taking a moment to form the thought in her head, Liliya then explained, “It is not Sergei who frightens me. It is the evil in the cave. It is fear for Angel. She is in danger.”
“Aww, honey,” Kit said, resting her hand on Liliya’s arm. “God has you in the safest place possible on this earth. The Haven is surrounded by His angels. Trust me, they won’t let anything get to you here. That’s probably the only reason Rachel’s been able to get some sort of rest here. Trust me,” Kit said, tossing her long auburn hair over her shoulder, “you are perfectly safe here.”
“Can they find me at school?”
“The Devil and his minions are everywhere on this planet,” Kit admitted, much to Liliya’s horror, “but – and this is a big but – but God is bigger than anything here on earth. He didn’t just create this planet and its inhabitants. He only had to open His beautiful mouth and speak them into existence. Trust me, you are on the right side of this.”
“Then, why is Angel still there?”
“Knowing what Nico told me, and knowing Angel the way I do, I’m pretty sure it’s because she knows where she’s going when she dies. She wanted to give the rest of you a chance to live your life. You and Katia have had one doozy of a life so far,” Kit said with a gentle smile. “You are now in a safe place. Casey and Mark will look after you as one of their own. You may not have been born to them, but you are now theirs. You will have many doors here in the States open to you. As to what you want to do with your life, it’s completely up to you. Katia has looked after you as much as she could, and has done an amazing job at it, I must say,” she said, smiling at Katia, who nodded in appreciation. “But, now she has her own path she must follow. She’s given you the gift of being here at the Haven while she moves forward. In the meantime, she’s fixin’ to go out to fight for, and with, the others. God has an amazing plan for both of you. Did you know that when I was in college, I was kidnapped as well?”
“You were?” Liliya asked, as both she and Katia looked at Kit wide-eyed.
“Oh yes,” Kit assured them. “There was a sadly misguided man who thought I was meant for him. God had a different plan, though. While I was being held captive, the one verse that allowed me to keep my sanity was Jeremiah 29:11. It says, ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.’ God had an incredible plan for me. He sent Mark to help me out of another mess too. He, along with my husband, Nico, whom you’ve already met, finally got me out of all of that. Now we have lived in God’s grace and mercy on Serenity Wells Station for years. He gave us the gift of twin boys, Joshua and Caleb, and twin girls, Leah and Rachel, as well. He also gave us the blessing of, when a young neighbor girl of ours got pregnant out of wedlock, having the opportunity to save the baby’s life. The parents wanted the girl to have an abortion because she was too young.” When she said that, both girls gasped. “I know, but God had a better plan for that little baby. She was born into that family and raised by the young girl’s parents. And now, that beautiful little baby has grown into the young woman my Caleb married. He and Willow run the station now. And, the little girl who got pregnant is married with three children of her own. She’s also a doctor.”
“Really?” Liliya asked, stunned.
“Yes. See, despite all the bad, God had a plan, and He knew who needed to be there for it to come to fruition. We may never know the why, but we know the Who...God. We know that no matter what has happened, that God is still there, looking out for those of us who are His. He’ll never leave you now that you are one of His.”
“But...still scared,” Liliya admitted, as Katia still had her arm protectively around her sister.
“You will be. That’s natural and understandable,” Kit explained. “You’re mind and body will continue to battle what all has happened for a long time. Thankfully, though, you are in a safe place, surrounded by safe people. There is only love and protection here,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “I won’t lie to you, though. In 1 Peter 5:8, we are reminded to, ‘Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary the devil walketh about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.’ I’m not telling you that to scare you. I’m telling you so you stay on your toes. We don’t fight against flesh and blood. You’ve seen firsthand what we’re fighting. I know you know what’s out there. However, in this moment in time, you need to relax, and rest in the fact that you are safe. In order for you to work through what you’ve been through, you have to get some rest. Now, I’ve brought a tea from our station doctor for you to drink so you can get some sleep. Will you drink it?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Liliya agreed.
“Wonderful,” Kit said, getting off the bed. “I’ll go get it. I’ll be back as soon as it’s finished. When was the last time you ate?”
“She ate a little dinner last night,” Katia explained.
“Right-oh,” Kit said in a sigh. “I’ll bring ya up some breakkie too.”
“Breakkie?” Katia cocked her head to the side again. “What is this breakkie?”
“No worries.” Kit smiled gently. “That just means breakfast. I’ll be back in a tic,” she said and left.
When she was out of earshot, Katia looked to her sister, and they spoke in Russian. “We are out of there, little one,” Katia encouraged Liliya.
“I know that. I do not know if it is okay to rest, though. Every time I do, I see those creatures,” Liliya said with a shudder.
“You have to rest. You are safe. I trust these people.”
“You do?” Liliya asked, wide-eyed. “You do not trust anyone!”
“I know. God has shown me amazing things in my dreams. I know these A.N.G.E.L.s are good people. I know God is bigger than any of this, or you wouldn’t be here. I also know without sleep,” she said, lifting Liliya’s chin so she would look at her, “you will not get any better.”
Looking down for a moment, Liliya organized her thoughts now that her head was a little clearer than when she woke. When she looked back up to Katia, she explained, “You are my sestra. You are the only person on this planet that I love.”
“As are you my sestra, but you know you are not the only person I love.”
“There is another?” she asked, stunned.
“Three. They are God, Jesus, and the Spirit. One day, little one, you too will know these as I do. Right now you are young in the Lord. Allow Kit to help you. Let her show you who Jesus is, and the sacrifice He made for you. Let her give you insight into Who the Father is. Let her tell you of the Spirit and His guidance. You will grow, much like the wonder twins downstairs,” Katia said, smiling at Allie and Callie’s nickname. “If you trust me, and you trust Jesus with your life, then you must trust Kit to help you.”
“I will,” Liliya agreed.
“The dreams will continue,” Katia said, resting her hand on the side of Liliya’s face, gently lifting it so she would look at her with her big blue eyes, “but they will become less and less with time. With each one you conquer, you will be slowly released from this nightmare. For now, though, know you are free from living the nightmare you were in.”
“I know. Thank you for coming for me.”
“Of course! I will come every time. Just like God, I would move heaven and earth to find you. As Kit said, the angels of the Lord are protecting us here. You will need to eat, and drink the tea so you can sleep. You have not slept for days.”
“Yes. The last time was when I was taken from that horrible house and drugged,” Liliya admitted.
“You are too young to have such problems. It was my hope to keep you from them.”
“The world is cruel.”
“Not here. Here you have a fresh start.”
“Thanks to you.”
“No, thanks to God, little one. Thanks to God.”
* * *
“Seriously, that last one was a soup sandwich!” Jerrod said as they talked about a new plan with the others when the group finally got together deep in the Tanami Desert. It was about midday, and a hot one at that. The closer summer came, the hotter and dryer it got.
Laughing, Joe asked, “Okay, what’s a soup sandwich?”
“It’s something that’s a mess...a disaster,” Mark explained with a smile on his face. “I haven’t heard that in a long time.”
“Oh, I’m full of them!” Jerrod grinned.
“I’m sure you’re full of something,” Jon added with a smirk. When Jerrod smacked his arm, he was laughing too hard to respond, so Mark continued.
“Okay,” Mark said, still smiling, “here are the previous points marked on the map.” With the map on the ground in the middle of the group, he explained, “We can’t go in with the same plan we had last time. It’s too predictable.”
“Not to mention virtually impossible to get to now because it’s blown to smithereens,” Jacob reminded them.
“This is true,” Mark said, stroking his chin in thought.
“We go this way,” Amarina said, pointing to the other side of the caves. “There is an exit there too.”
“Wait! What?” Nico looked at her stunned. “There’s another way out?”
“Yes,” she said, not sure why they were all looking at her in shock. “What is wrong?”
Groaning, Derek dropped his head on his hand as he explained, “Because we thought there was only one entrance. We haven’t been watching the other side.” Looking up at her, he added, “They could have taken her out the other side, and we won’t know because we weren’t watching there.”
“Oh,” she said, kicking herself on the inside for not mentioning it before then. “I did not think of that. I am sorry.”
“You didn’t know,” Josh said, hoping to ease her conscience. “Now that we know, we’re going to have to have two plans of attack.
“We were going in thinking they were in there,” Nico continued, “but they may be gone. If they aren’t, then they may very well be waiting for us to show up again, and will attack us outside the caves on the way in, or could very well seal us in there before we get out.”
“I see the problem,” Amarina said in understanding. “I am sorry.”
“Seriously, you have been invaluable,” Mark pointed out. “There is no way you should have thought to tell us that. It just means we need to change our strategy going in. We’re going to have to have a few in, and the rest outside cautiously moving in, looking for traps all the way in. Jacob, you are mission critical. You are to stay outside. I need your eyes on the ground. You know what to look for, because you set them all the time.”
“True,” Jacob agreed.
“At the same time, I need you to stay near, so when we come out you can set them off at a moment’s notice.”
“Consider it done. I’ll need some help mixing stuff and setting them up. You got everything on the list, right?”
“Yes,” Nico chuckled. “Not sure why you need part of this stuff, though.”
“Well, for the toilet paper I just need the rolls. Then I’ll use the rolls, the sugar, and the potassium nitrate to make smoke bombs. Those are going in with you this time,” he said sternly. “They’ll fill the cavern, giving you a chance to get out without losing anyone.”
“The bucket? The PVC pipe? The ammonia?” Jon questioned.
“Dude! You’ll find out. You asked me to make something that will explode. Trust me. It will blow.”
“While I don’t doubt that, moth balls and diesel gasoline?” Nico raised an eyebrow.
Jacob sighed, crossing his arms. “Do you trust me?” “Yes.”
“Then, trust me. You want it to blow? It’ll blow. You want to blow the entire cave system? I can do that for you too,” Jacob pointed out. “You want to fill the entire thing with smoke? I can do that. You want to blow a tree stump, or sufficiently blow a vehicle sending them both a fair distance? I got that covered too when you need it. Don’t doubt me, though.”
“Never,” Jesse said, ruffling his hair. “You’re too smart.”
Shoving his hand away, he grumbled, “I hate it when you do that.”
“No you don’t,” Jesse said knowingly. “You only like complaining about it,” he said ruffling his hair again. Ducking, he missed it when Jacob took a swing at him. Jesse grabbed him, taking him to the ground as they play wrestled.
“Can we calm the testosterone down a bit, and focus on getting Angel and the other man out?” Delaney asked, trying to be the voice of reason, putting a halt to the wrestling.
“I need at least until tomorrow,” Jacob said, as they got off the ground, brushing the dirt off. “One of the explosives has to settle before I can pull out what I need.”
“Done,” Mark agreed. “Now,” he said, directing everyone back to the map, “Amarina, the other entrance is where exactly?”
Pointing on the map, she said, “Here.”
Marking the spot on the map with an ‘x,’ Mark asked, “Are there any trees or hills on that side?”
Looking up at her, surprised again, Mark just sighed as he shook his head.
Amarina blushed. “Oh. I did it again. Didn’t I?”
“It’s okay,” Derek assured her. “This is new for you.”
“Yes. I usually just go on walk-about...not looking to pull someone outta danger.”
“It’s just a matter of adjusting your line of thinking,” Mark explained. “Okay, if I give you a couple pieces of paper, could you draw what the other side of that hillside looks like?”
“I can draw what it looks like before Jacob gets his presents ready. I can have it for you in the morning,” Amarina offered.
“Can you get it to us sooner than that?” Mark asked. “I can’t do anything until I know what it looks like.”
“In a couple hours?” Amarina proposed.
“That’ll work,” he said, looking toward Derek, who went to the Jeep to get pencil and paper.
“I’ll make it quick,” Amarina said, accepting the paper and pencils.
“Take your time, but hurry up,” Mark added. “We have to come up with a plan. In the meantime, the rest of us can keep watch, and help Jacob as much as possible.”
* * *
Groaning from the pain, Angel woke to her living nightmare. “Ohhh, why can’t this just be a really bad dream?” she said aloud.
“You are awake,” the angel said, as he got off the ground. Still translucent, he kept a vigilant eye and ear to everything around him.
“You’re still here? I didn’t imagine you?”
“No. I am still with you. I am not a figment of your imagination. God sent me here to stay with you so you know you are not alone. While I am here doing my best to keep you focused on God, you need to do your part and guard your heart against what the other side is trying to do,” he said. Standing around six foot, with blond hair, and royal blue eyes, he was dressed in a chiton, with a belt around his waist that carried his sword. His wings hung loosely on his back, while he kept his hand on his sword at all times, on alert.
“How do I do that?” Angel asked, exhausted.
“You follow the words of Proverbs 4:23. It says to, ‘Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.’ You committed your spirit and heart to the Lord before you passed out. Do you remember that?”
“I vaguely remember that,” Angel admitted. “Did Allen really give up?”
“Unfortunately, yes.” The angel nodded. “As for guarding your heart, you do as you did last time, staying focused on the Lord and His words, and you will do well.”
“Will I make it out alive?”
“That is not known to me. I am ordered to stay by your side. I will die before I leave you.”
“Thank you,” Angel said, appreciatively. “Do you...do you think they’ll be back anytime soon?”
“I know you are hungry, because you have not eaten in two days, but remember to whom you belong. You are a daughter of the Lord God. They will use food and drink to tempt you.”
“Man does not live by bread alone,” Angel said, remembering when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness.
“Exactly!” the angel said with a smile. “You can do this, Angel!” Suddenly turning to his left, he looked toward the entrance to the cavern for only a moment before he disappeared right before her eyes.
“Ohhhh, you are awake!” a demon hissed, walking into the cavern, wringing his hands in delight. “Deliciousss! Time for another round!”