Chapter One

 

 

WESLEY GORDON knelt at the side of little Andre’s bed. He always did that with the children. When he stood over them, he could see the apprehension in their huge, already fearful eyes in sunken faces. He hated that he had to wear a mask. He knew without it his patients would feel less apprehensive, but in the pediatric quarantine ward, he had no choice. He couldn’t do anyone any good if he got sick. Yes, he’d been immunized for everything—including diseases that hadn’t been seen in decades—before he’d come to Haiti, but none of them could take any chances. He smiled beneath the mask and mimicked the soothing sounds his mother had used on him years earlier when he’d been sick. It always worked; something he’d told his mother when he’d found time to call her.

Wes took out one of the tongue depressors he carried in his pocket. “Ahhh,” he said, and Andre opened his mouth and made the same sound. Wes used the depressor to check his throat, which was now only slightly red and returning to normal. He smiled and checked the boy’s eyes and ears, which looked blessedly clear. “You’ll be able to leave soon,” Wes said, knowing the child didn’t understand, but making sure his tone was unmistakable. What he got in return was a smile filled with gratitude and touched with hope. Wes turned to Andre’s mother, who sat on the other side of the bed. Often a parent sat with their sick child night and day, and since they were often exposed to the same disease as the child, quarantining them with the child was required anyway. He nodded at her, and she grinned back. Then, as a precaution, Wes moved to her and checked her over as well. She seemed healthy, much to his relief. Wes lightly patted the boy’s arm and then stepped away from the bed.

He picked up the old-fashioned clipboard that hung from the foot of the bed and made notations that the boy could be moved to a regular ward for a few days and then be released. The few extra days were to ensure he was fed and well on his way to recovery before leaving the hospital. Cases like Andre’s gave Wes hope. He said good-bye, and both Andre and his mother said good-bye as well. Wes hoped they would be okay, because unless one of them got ill again, he would probably never see them again. With a final smile, he moved on to the next bed. Like Andre’s, this one also held a child.

This little girl, her skin scarred and raw, was alone, with no parent or anyone else at her bedside. According to the chart, she’d been found near death outside the hospital by one of the nurses. Wes had done everything he could, but when he lifted the girl’s arm, she was cool to the touch. Wes checked her pulse and then quietly lowered her little arm to the bed and covered it. Then he pulled the sheet up over her face and closed his eyes. He’d never been a religious man, but since arriving in Haiti three months earlier, he’d found a spirituality that comforted him. Wes said a short, silent prayer for the little girl’s soul, as he did for every child who died in his care. At least on his watch, no child was going to die and not be mourned in some way. Wes stepped away from the bed and glanced at one of the nurses winding through the large room filled with row after row of beds. Once part of an old military airport that before the earthquake had been used for storage, the rooms had been converted and partitioned into a hospital. He caught the eye of one of the nurses.

Sandy was a petite woman, not very tall and ninety pounds, at most. A good stiff breeze would probably blow her away. But appearances were deceiving. Sandy was as tough as nails. She knew her job and how to do it efficiently with little wasted movement, and when no one was looking, she handed out chocolates and toys to the children. “What is it, Doctor?” she asked quietly and followed Wes’s gaze to the bed. “I’ll take care of it. You see to the living.” The woman was almost always unfailingly practical, which, given the tough circumstances they worked under, was a blessing. She turned to walk away and then stopped and patted him lightly on the arm. For a split second, they shared a look. They both saw the same thing day in and day out. They knew the stream of people from the camps wasn’t going to let up anytime soon, but that glimpse of shared hardship left Wes feeling a bit less alone in his turmoil. He nodded, not bothering to smile because of the mask, and moved on to the next bed.

Wes spent hours checking patient after patient. Many of the children he saw were simply malnourished and dehydrated. He got them food and provided supplements for both the patient and their family. Studies had shown that if one member of the family was malnourished, most likely they all were, so the team tried whenever possible to treat the wider issue, hoping to head off problems. On a daily basis, Wes saw situations and circumstances that took a child’s life, and often they could have been prevented if the proper resources had been available.

“Have you eaten today?” Sandy asked him hours later. Wes checked his old watch and shook his head. The time had flown by, and he realized he’d skipped lunch, again, and it was nearly time for dinner. “Go and eat,” she said. “This will all be here when you get back.”

He glanced around the room one more time. “Would you join me?” he asked. He’d done the same thing a few times before, but she’d always refused for some reason. She looked around the room and then checked her watch.

“All right,” she told him with a sigh.

Wes made an “after you” motion and followed her out of the ward. They removed their masks, and Wes took a deep breath. Hot or not, it felt good to breathe freely again. They walked down the hallway to another, much smaller area with fluorescent lights hanging from a beamed ceiling. The space had been converted into a sort of mess hall for the doctors and other hospital workers. Everyone at the camp hospital worked long, hard hours, usually six days a week, so there was always food available. Wes took a seat in one of the plastic chairs at a folding table and yawned. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so tired and unable to sleep in my life.”

“Go on and get your food,” Sandy told him, stifling a yawn herself.

“Do you want me to bring you something?” Wes volunteered.

“Anything, and plenty of coffee,” she said, slipping off her resilient shoes.

“Okay. I’ll be right back,” Wes said. He grabbed a tray and went through the line. It was a cafeteria with serviceable food that was nourishing, if a bit tasteless. But the food fit the bill, and Wes carried two trays back to the table—one with food, and the other with mugs and a pot of strong coffee.

“You’re a godsend,” Sandy told him as she took both mugs from the tray and then the coffee, filling the mugs while Wes set down the food. He sat, and they began to eat. He’d never really talked to Sandy much outside of work. “How long have you been here?” Wes asked her.

“About nine months. I originally volunteered for six, but extended it for another six. After that I think I’ve done what I can do,” she told him before sipping from the mug. “I can take the misery, the rain, the heat—God, the heat—but I think what’s driving me home is this terrible coffee.” She sipped and grimaced. “What I wouldn’t give for a rich cappuccino right about now.” She held the mug in her hands and breathed deeply.

“Me too,” Wes sighed. He sipped, and the coffee went down hot and hard, like the moonshine his uncle made when he was a kid. He and his friends used to sneak sips of it. “Reminds me of homemade whiskey—take too many sips and you end up flat on your ass.”

“Amen, brother,” she said, raising her mug. She took another drink and then began to eat.

Scalloped potatoes and ham stared up at Wes from the plate. He remembered what his mother used to make and knew this was going to be absolutely nothing like it. But he ate anyway, because it was food and he needed the energy. He still had hours to go before his shift ended. “I’ve been here four months and have three months to go myself,” Wes said for something to talk about.

“Why’d you volunteer?” Sandy asked.

Wes sighed loudly. “I’ve been blessed with so much. I earned a scholarship to medical school, and after I graduated I wanted to see the world and do some good.”

Sandy stared at him hard and then smiled. “That’s the bullshit answer. The political one you tell people because it’s the right thing to say. I know; I’ve used it more times than I can count. What’s the real one?”

“Honestly, I was hoping I could do some good in the world,” Wes answered.

“Okay,” Sandy said. “Most of us are here because we want to help, but I can guarantee there’s always another reason.” She lifted her mug to her lips, but didn’t actually take a drink. “What are you running away from?” Wes stared back at her with his eyebrows raised. “Fine. I’ll go first. I’m really here because I wanted a tropical vacation.” She flashed a quick smile and arched her brow.

Wes leaned over the table. “Next time, specify a location with cabanas and gorgeous shirtless pool boys. That’s my idea of heaven.”

She smiled, and tension drained out of her body. “I never would have guessed. You’ve asked me to join you for dinner a few times, and I always thought….” She snickered and then began to laugh outright.

“You thought I was…?” Wes joined in her laughter. “God, no. I was just interested in being friends with someone who understands.” Their laughter was short-lived, and they returned to the food, eating now in companionable silence. “Does it ever get to you?” he finally asked once they were nearly done with the food.

“Of course,” Sandy answered with a shrug. “When I first got here there were nights I damned near cried myself to sleep. But then I got up and went to work. Things are changing, but way too slowly.” She pushed away her plate and closed her blue eyes. “It’s hardest working with the children.”

“Yes, it is. I went into this profession because I love kids and I figured I’d get to work with them. I didn’t really understand that most of the time I’d be working with the sick ones,” Wes admitted, and Sandy smiled.

“So, I’m dying to ask about this ex-boyfriend of yours….”

“I don’t talk about it much here,” Wes said, looking around. “Rumors fly, and I don’t want it to become an issue at work. That could very easily happen.” This was Haiti, the Caribbean, where views were very traditional and much less tolerant. Things had been bad enough in the small coal town in West Virginia where he grew up, but the people there were PFLAG supporters compared to the attitudes in Haiti.

“I understand,” Sandy said. Wes refilled her mug and then his own, and they talked a bit as they finished their coffee. Then he took care of the trays and dishes before walking back to the ward with her.

Wes worked for several more hours. There were so many children, and all of them deserved his attention. He got the pleasure of releasing some children, but it seemed like for every one he got on the road to recovery, two more came in the door. Finally, his relief came in, and Wes left the hospital for the night. He was half asleep on his feet as he walked to the exit. Unlike the hospitals back home, no door swung open for him. He pushed open the heavy door and stepped out into the soupy, tropical air. The hospital was at the terminal end of the old airport, the rest of the area a makeshift city. Except this city was made up of tents and shelters with walls made up of whatever could be scrounged from the ruined buildings of Port-au-Prince—wood, poles, fallen billboards. Roofs were sometimes canvas, but more often tarps lashed to whatever was nearby to provide some shelter from either the torrential rains or the beating, merciless, tropical sun. Thousands, tens of thousands of people called this place home now, more than two, no, closer to three years after the earthquake that had leveled or damaged much of the city. And it was never quiet. The sound of so many people packed so closely together sounded a bit like a beehive on steroids—not quiet, but with no one sound standing out as everything blended into a buzzing cacophony.

He began walking around the lighted perimeter of the building toward a compound adjacent to the hospital, where he had a room. He’d just rounded the corner when a bloodcurdling scream of absolute terror pierced the night, drowning out everything else. Wes began to run in that direction and heard others shifting around him. Another scream followed the first, this one fainter, but it sent a shock through his bones and he ran faster. “What’s going on?” Wes yelled and kept running. He could now make out other footsteps, and as he passed the last tent in a row, he spotted a small group of men, yelling in anger. One of them, taller than the rest, held a small gasoline can. “Get the fuck away!” Wes screamed, and all the men turned toward him. Wes saw they weren’t really men, but older boys. Back home, they might be going off to college, but here they were out to cause trouble.

Wes saw one of the men kick whatever or whoever they had cornered. Then the man took off down the mud street, and the others didn’t seem so brave. The tall youth dropped the gas can and followed his friend, with the other two right behind him. Wes slowed and approached the figure lying on the ground. The acrid scent of petroleum made his nose burn and his eyes water. The figure on the ground whimpered and moved slightly. “Jesus Christ,” Wes whispered as he realized the teenager had been doused with gasoline. He shivered in the night heat as he realized what they’d intended to do. “It’s okay, I’m here to help,” Wes said. He didn’t want to move him, but the kid was lying in a pool of gasoline-soaked mud, so he gently lifted him up and settled him on the rough grass ten feet or so away.

He moaned, and Wes tried not to cause any more harm as he gently probed for broken bones. Thankfully, he didn’t find any. He heard someone approaching and turned to see Sandy running toward him. “I heard the commotion and saw you take off,” she said.

“He’s been doused with gasoline. Get me some towels to clean him up with. He’s been beaten too, but I don’t think anything is broken,” Wes said, and Sandy rushed away. Turning back to the boy, Wes told him, “Keep your eyes and mouth closed. I have some help coming, and we’ll get you cleaned up.” He didn’t know if the kid understood him, but he did as Wes instructed, probably on instinct. Wes continued looking him over as best he could in the dim light. The boy flinched when he touched his side, and Wes knew that was where he’d been kicked. He hoped it was only a bruise and not something worse.

Sandy returned with Paul, one of the men who helped clean up at the hospital. “Here are some towels, and I brought plenty of swabs,” she said. Wes took the swabs and began wiping the liquid from around the boy’s eyes and then his mouth.

“Wipe up his hair,” he told Sandy, “and get a—” Wes stopped when Paul produced a blanket. “Excellent. Did you think to bring scissors?” Wes asked, and Sandy handed him a pair. Wes immediately began cutting off the boy’s clothes. There wasn’t much to them, and within moments they fell away. Wes used a towel to wipe him up and then wrapped the teenager in a blanket. “Let’s get him inside where I can check him over better.”

“Shouldn’t we wait for a litter?”

“If we do, the gasoline will eat through more of his skin. Time is precious,” Wes said, and he lifted the boy into his arms and carried him toward the hospital entrance.

Inside, he went right to one of the examination areas. “We need to flush his eyes,” he told Sandy, and she got right to work. Others appeared, probably drawn by the odor. “Can you get someone to start washing him up?” Wes asked Sandy.

Within minutes, they got his eyes cleaned and then his lips, giving him strong mouthwash, which they had him then spit out. That wasn’t hard—the gasoline probably tasted better than that stuff, but it was effective. “Did you swallow any?” Wes asked, and the kid shook his head. “Do you understand English?”

“Yes,” he whispered. “I did not swallow any.” He tried to get off the table. “You should not help me. They will hurt you if you do.”

“No one is going to hurt us,” Wes said and gently coaxed him back down. “Just relax and let us help you.” He gently lifted part of the blanket so he could take a look at the kid’s side. “What’s your name?”

The kid didn’t answer right away. “René,” he finally said, his voice very soft. Wes continued feeling his way, trying hard not to cause him any pain. René’s side was already beginning to change color, but thankfully the injury didn’t appear too bad. “Sandy, here, is going to help get you cleaned up. She’ll take you for an X-ray and then we’ll get you in a bed where you can rest.” Wes wanted to watch him for a while; René could have internal injuries. He didn’t think so, but that bruise on René’s side was growing by the second, and he definitely needed to be cleaned up.

Sandy got a pan of water and some soap. Wes thanked Paul for his help, and Paul went back to work. As Sandy applied soap to a clean sponge, Wes got ready to leave. “You’re going to leave me here with her?” René asked.

“She’ll get you cleaned up and then help you to bed. You’re safe here, and no one will hurt you. I promise. Let her get you cleaned up. Your skin will feel a lot better.” Wes gently touched René’s shoulder. “Just relax and let us help.”

René seemed to settle down a bit, and Wes left, drawing the curtain for some privacy. He debated going to his room, but decided it would be best to stick around and make sure things were okay. When Paul walked by, Wes stopped him. “Do you know what was going on?” Paul refused to meet Wes’s eyes. “You do. Why were they ready to set him on fire?”

“He…,” Paul began and then paused. “He go with men. They no like that he like men.”

Wes nodded. Paul shifted from foot to foot, uncomfortable and looking like he was ready to bolt at any second. “Thank you. I get the idea.” Paul was visibly relieved and went back to his work. A cry from behind the curtain caught Wes’s attention, and he peered inside. René sat upright, holding a bit of blanket over his crotch.

“I need to be able to wash you so you don’t burn,” Sandy said gently. Wes caught René’s eye and gave him a stern look, just like his mother had done to him when he misbehaved. René settled down, and Sandy finished cleaning his skin. Wes stepped inside the curtain, and Sandy got fresh water and washed René’s hair. By the time she was done, René looked better. Sandy left the area with the dirty water, then returned with a clean blanket. She took the smelly one away, and Wes checked René over one more time.

“You’re very lucky I found you when I did. Do you know why those men wanted to hurt you?” It was instantly clear that René knew. He peered down at the floor, refusing to meet Wes’s eyes. “You have nothing to be ashamed of.” Wes wasn’t sure if René would open up. When he continued peering at the floor, Wes knew that was all he was going to get. “The nurse will be back soon with something you can wear, and she’ll take you for an X-ray, then we’ll get you settled in a bed. You need to rest and let us know if you’re in pain. Okay?”

René nodded.

Wes waited for Sandy and René to return from getting the X-ray done, and once René had been taken to one of the wards, Wes allowed himself a yawn. “I’m going to head to my quarters. Would you leave word with the night staff that they’re to call me if he has any issues?”

“Of course,” Sandy said.

“You get some rest too,” Wes said with a half smile and left the hospital for the second time that night. He walked briskly toward his quarters, too tired to notice much. He did listen and look out for trouble, but other than that, he moved as quickly as he could. All he wanted was to get to his cramped quarters, strip off his clothes, and collapse on his bed. Of course, that wasn’t to be. As he approached, he saw Leland, a colleague he’d never really cared for, standing outside the room next to his, leaning against the wall.

“I heard you had some excitement,” Leland said without moving.

“Yeah. A gang of men poured gasoline on a kid and planned to set him on fire,” Wes relayed, his anger boiling up. No one deserved to be treated that way, and knowing why René had been targeted made him even angrier.

“You know why, don’t you?” Leland asked.

“Yes,” Wes answered. He really wasn’t in the mood to talk about this. He began fishing out his keys.

“Then you can understand it,” Leland said in the same tone and expression he’d use to describe a bowel repair.

Wes clenched his fists. “No, I can’t. No one deserves to be treated like that, and you know it.” Wes inserted his key into the lock and opened the door.

“Touchy tonight,” Leland observed and dug into his pocket for the packet of cigarettes that never seemed to be far away.

“I’m tired, and you’re a smart man. You should know better,” Wes retorted and went inside, then closed the door to cut off any further conversation and the cigarette smoke.

The room was stiflingly hot. Wes turned on a light and knelt on the floor. He peered under the bed in case anything had crawled under there. One night he hadn’t looked and nearly grabbed hold of a lizard. They were everywhere. Well, they had been. Wes had been told their population had diminished significantly in the area around the camp. He’d shooed it outside and since then had always looked. He pulled out the small air-conditioning unit and plugged it in, grateful he had electricity. He then opened the window and put in the plug he’d made that contained the exhaust hose.

The unit was quiet, a miraculous gift from his sister’s husband, who worked for a company that made specialized cooling units. They’d sent it to him a month earlier in a box marked “toilet plungers.” It was the one luxury he had and it allowed him to sleep. Cool air blew from the unit, and Wes closed his eyes. Slowly the temperature in his sparse living quarters came down, and the sweat on his skin evaporated.

He wished he’d remembered to shower at the hospital. He was too tired right now to gather his things and walk to the outdoor communal bathing area, but that was his only option, so he got his kit and walked, half awake, to the bathroom, cleaned up, and went back to his room, passing others in a blur. Once back in the room, he checked the bedding for insects and other nasties before turning off the light and climbing into bed. He was asleep within seconds. Unfortunately, he didn’t stay that way.

His phone rang, and he reached for it, nearly knocking it onto the floor. “Yes,” Wes said as he began pulling on his clothes.

“Nurse say you say to call. Boy running fever,” a male voice said in very clipped English.

“I’m on my way,” Wes said. He hung up and finished dressing. He turned off his AC and slid the unit under the bed before closing the window, a practiced maneuver that took less than ten seconds. Then he stepped into his shoes and went out the door, shoving his phone and keys into his pockets. As he hurried, he finished buttoning his shirt. By the time he reached the hospital, he was presentable. The nurse met him as he hurried down one of the hallways and escorted him to René’s bed.

He was feverish and sweating badly. For the millionth time, Wes wished they had better diagnostic equipment. Most of the time all they could do was rudimentary checks. “Is there a surgeon available?” Wes asked as he worked.

“Not right now,” she answered.

“Then call one, please,” Wes said, but the nurse didn’t move.

“I’m not sure who…,” she told him, and Wes swore under his breath.

“Then call Nurse Sandy,” he said, and she hurried away. Wes wasn’t a surgeon, although he had assisted plenty of them in medical school.

“She’s on her way,” the nurse said when she returned.

“Good, can you prep him for surgery? I need to speak with Sandy as soon as she gets here,” Wes said, and within a few seconds Sandy rushed in.

“I called Mark Payne. He’s on his way over,” Sandy said. Mark was a volunteer, like Wes, and lived just a few doors down from Wes in the compound.

“Thank God,” Wes said. He knew there had to be someone who could perform this surgery. René groaned, and Wes held his hand to try to comfort him. “We have someone coming who’ll help you.”

“Let’s get him ready,” Sandy said to one of the other nurses, and they got to work while Wes did his best to keep René calm. They finished as Dr. Payne arrived, and then René was wheeled down to the operating room. They all scrubbed, gloved, gowned, and masked before entering the operating room. It looked more like something from the fifties or sixties than a modern operating theater, but it was as clean as possible, and at least the equipment they had was modern.

“Can you watch his vitals and act as anesthesiologist?” Mark asked, and Wes agreed, getting into position and checking the equipment. “Is this the kid you rescued?” Mark asked as he got his instruments ready. Wes put the mask over René’s face and started the gas that would put him out. “We use what we have,” Mark said to no one in particular, and once René was out, he went right to work.

“It looks like they got a really good kick to the kid’s kidneys,” Mark observed as he worked steadily, with Sandy assisting him. Wes thought the scene looked a bit like something out of a M*A*S*H rerun. At least they weren’t working in a tent. “There it is,” Mark said as he worked. “That kick sure did a number on him.” He continued working. “Got it,” he said a few minutes later. “I want to check for… just a… second….” He concentrated on his task, shifting his head to change the angle. “Yeah, looks like we got it.” Mark watched a bit longer and then said, “We’re going to close.” Mark moved with graceful efficiency, and once the incision was sutured, Wes eased up on the gas and removed the mask.

“Thank you,” Wes said.

“Watch him for infection for a few days, and do your best to keep him quiet,” Mark said to both of them. “The bleeder wasn’t too bad. The swelling from the injury was the real danger. I don’t see any reason why he won’t be fine if we can keep infection under control. I’m going to try to catch a few hours of sleep, and I suggest you do the same.”

Wes nodded, but knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep. Sandy didn’t look like she could, either. “I’ll go see if there’s any of the turpentine they call coffee,” Sandy volunteered.

“Thanks. I’m going to check on a few patients and then make sure René is resting comfortably.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll find you,” Sandy said and walked away. Wes walked to the children’s ward, where he checked on the ones who were awake. He got a few smiles that touched his heart. Here were children who lived in horrible conditions, most without permanent homes, adequate food, sanitation, or clothing, and yet they were still children with wide eyes and ready smiles, even when they were hurting. If nothing else, he’d carry a bit of that hope and fortitude home with him.

“Here,” Sandy said from behind him as Wes walked through the ward where René had been placed, an IV stand near the top of his bed. His eyes were closed and his face was drawn. Wes resisted the urge to check him over, instead simply watching him from the foot of the bed. He took the mug Sandy offered with a slight smile and went back to watching René. “There’s something about him, isn’t there?”

Wes nodded once, but didn’t trust himself enough to speak. There was something about this kid that touched him. Maybe because he was gay, or at least Wes thought he was gay. He might have been doing what he was doing out of desperation. Wes tried not to think about that too hard or his stomach was likely to rebel. He had seen many things that would turn most people’s stomachs, but the cruelty shown this kid nearly sent him into a screaming fit. “You know you can’t get too involved,” Sandy said softly, and Wes turned to look at her. He knew she was right. He had to walk away and move on to the other people who needed him, and God knew there were plenty of them. He thought about trying to get a little more sleep, but he was wide awake, so he continued working his way through the ward.

The sun was up and the heat building by the time Wes had seen most of the children. Then he put on his mask and gloves and ventured into the pediatric quarantine ward. There were empty beds, like there were every morning. A number of the tiniest patients had died in the night. Wes also stopped by the beds of new patients and checked them over. Some of the children had common diseases like the flu, but others were deathly sick. Wes did his best for each one. But with some, all he could do was make them as comfortable as possible. Those were the hardest, and sometimes there was nothing he could do. He also stopped to talk to the parents when he could. Like parents the world over, each face reflected the misery of their child combined with their own fear and worry.

Finally, once he’d seen everyone, Wes left the ward and stripped off his mask and gloves. He was exhausted already, but decided to see how René was doing. He appeared to be asleep when Wes stopped in. He stayed a few minutes and then continued on.

He was