Progress down the interstate was slow at first, as we had to wind our way around many stopped cars. Soon, though, Arnold had learned that he could drive just as quickly down the shoulder and miss most of the cars.
I self-administered a small dose of Propofol soon after we got on the freeway, making Arnold swear to check my pulse every fifteen minutes. After the anesthetic hit me, I crashed as Arnold drove on into the gathering darkness.
I woke up to a pouring rain several hours later. It took me a while to lose the groggy feeling, but once I had, I inquired as to the time.
“You’ve been out for four and a half hours,” Arnold replied, glancing at his watch, “And right now we just finished crossing the mountains in North Carolina, so we’re in Tennessee on I75. It’ll turn into I59 after Cleveland.”
“It took you that long to cross the mountains?” I asked, gingerly shifting position to take some weight off my injured arm. Having eight inches of knife sticking out wasn’t exactly helping matters either.
“You have no idea what a pain in the hind end it was. You’re lucky you were asleep. I ended up having to horse this thing over these crazy redneck back roads because all the tunnels were packed with cars. It would have taken hours to clear them.”
“Huh. Do you need a break?”
“That’d be great,” Arnold replied. His eyes were bloodshot, and it was almost midnight. “Do you think you can handle it with one arm?”
“Probably,” I said, “The roads look pretty clear.”
“They are,” Arnold responded darkly, “Just wait until you have to drive down the main street of Fartville, Tennessee where Bubba and Homer were driving their pickups when everything happened. It’s as bad as Atlanta.” He still pulled over, and I slid behind the wheel.
Arnold was out in minutes after we pulled off again. Despite Arnold’s dire predictions, I found driving one-handed fairly easy; it was a simple matter to dodge cars.
I drove until four in the morning, at which point I woke Arnold up and we switched seats again. Around this time, another morphine pill helped combat the growing pain in my shoulder. We continued this four-hour rotation until we crossed into Alabama, at which point we received a radio call while at a rest area.
“Sierra Alpha to Sierra Eight.”
Arnold was busy opening a vending machine with a fire axe, so I picked up the handset with my good hand. “This is Sierra Niner, go ahead.”
“Sierra, what’s your location?”
“We crossed into Alabama near Sulphur Springs about twenty minutes ago, over.”
“Our team is at Gadsden, heading your way, over.”
“Great news, Alpha,” I grinned, “Hope they brought plenty of sutures, over.”
“They’re prepared. We’ll contact you when you’re approaching each other, over.”
“Sounds good. Out.” I tossed the radio aside and turned to Arnold. “How the hell will they know when we’re approaching each other?”
“Satellites,” he replied, handing me a bottle of Sprite, “They’re probably watching us right now.”
We drove for another hour when the radio sounded again. “Sierra Niner, pop smoke.”
Arnold slowed to a halt and pulled a bright orange flare gun out from behind the seat. He pulled the trigger and a glowing flare shot out into the bright blue morning sky. As the flare dimmed and fell back, he pulled a day/night flare out of his bag and activated it. He tossed it out the window and it began to belch orange smoke.
“Team copies your smoke, Sierras,” the radio informed us a moment later, “Extinguish flare and continue forward for one mile.”
Arnold put the Humvee back in gear and we drove forward for a few more minutes. Suddenly, I saw a cluster of flashing lights under a bridge up ahead.
“I see them.” He picked up a pair of binoculars and examined them while slowing down, “It’s an ambulance, there’s a couple military vehicles with it. That’s them.”
We pulled under the bridge and shut off the engine. Several Guardsmen were lurking near their vehicles and waved cautiously as we got out of the Humvee. One approached me.
“Niner? How’s the shoulder?”
“Sucky, now that you mention it,” I responded, “You the doctor?”
“One of them. Come on into the ambulance and we’ll get started taking this thing out.” I followed the man into the mobile surgical unit. It had obviously had a past life as a civilian ambulance, but had been given a rushed camouflage paint job, leaving only the lights and windows untouched. Inside, however, it was stocked with boxes of medicines and medical supplies, and had been modified to hold a large table in the middle of the floor.
“What’s your weight, sir?” A woman already in the truck asked me as the man I had spoken to set about stripping off my equipment.
“I don’t have a clue anymore,” I responded thoughtfully, “I used to weigh 174, though.”
She sighed. “Well, we’ll go with that, then. Have you had anything to eat in the last twenty-four hours?”
“Water and some snacks.”
“We can deal with that. Go ahead and lie on the table.”
The medics proceeded to cut by bandages and shirt off and lay me flat on the operating table. “All right, Mr. Todd,” one informed me, “We’re putting you out now.” He gestured to an IV line. “When you wake up, either this knife will be out, you’ll be dead, or both.”
“Thanks for the encouragement. ‘Night.”
“Good night, sir.”
It was dark when I woke up. I was incredibly groggy, and it took a while for me to focus. Finally, though, I managed to gather the time from the glowing dashboard clock.
One in the morning, I thought, Well, if there’s still time, I must be alive. I immediately lifted my right arm to check my opposite shoulder, and encountered a mass of bandages instead of a knife. Awesome. At least it’s out.
I could hear voices outside, and I tried to make some sort of noise to signal someone that I was awake, but was unsuccessful. My throat felt like a cotton ball, and, exhausted by my efforts at communication, I fell back to sleep.
I was awoken by someone shaking my good shoulder. I cracked my eyes open to see a grinning Arnold.
“Hey, man,” I managed to croak, “What’s up?”
“Not much,” he responded, sitting on the counter opposite my table, “We’ve moved the convoy back to a hotel in Gadsden while you recover, though. Good to have you back, by the way.”
“Thanks. Got any water?”
Arnold handed me a bottle, and I managed to get some of it in my mouth. “Thanks . . . How long do they say it’ll be?”
“They want to keep us here for a week,” Arnold said, “Then they’ll take the stitches out and send you home. They said the surgery went just fine, though, no complications. Check out the knife.”
I examined the proffered blade. The blade was narrow and slightly curved, with etching along the sides. The handle was worn, clearly made of bone, and flared to make a solid pommel. I squeezed it tightly; it fit perfectly in my hand. “Nice . . . maybe I’ll keep it.”
Our conversation was cut off as the medic entered the ambulance. “Morning Mr. Todd. How’s the shoulder?”
“Dunno,” Was my weak response, “I can’t see it. How’d the surgery go?”
“Uneventful. We were worried that it might have cut some ligaments in your shoulder, but the one that it did damage we were able to stitch back together, so it’s good as new.”
“What happens now?” I asked.
“We’re headed to a more permanent location,” he replied, leaning against the counter, “Probably a hotel or something, I don’t know for sure. We’ll all stay there for the next week or so, or until I’m comfortable with taking your stitches out. After that, I’ll send you home with a slew of activities you are forbidden to undertake for the next month.”
“And after that?” I asked, craning my head to examine my shoulder. The bandage was getting in my way.
“You’ll be mostly back to normal. Even after the first month is over, you’ll need to take it easy; no heavy lifting for another few months. After that, you’ll probably be back to normal.”
Another soldier stuck his head in the back door of the ambulance. “Doc? We’re ready.”
“Time to go,” the doctor said, turning for the door, “I’ll be up in the front if you need me.”
“Thanks, doc,” I said, extending my good hand. “By the way, we still don’t know who you are.”
“185th Aviation Brigade, Mississippi,” The doctor replied, shaking my hand, “We’ve augmented our ranks with other soldiers and Guardsmen who took NORAD’s warning, but we’re mostly 185ths.”
He exited and reentered in the passenger’s seat in the front of ambulance. Arnold also left to follow in our Humvee. Following as close as we dared to the vehicle in front of us, we pulled out from under the bridge and drove down the road towards Gadsden to spend the next few weeks. Worn out after my talk with the doctor, I went back to sleep as we drove out into the bright, sunny morning.