Anywho! Today, I bring to you the first part (of three) in a WWII Christmas short story that I wrote last month. I'll be posting a part every other day now through Christmas Eve. I sincerely hope y'all enjoy... :)
Nurse Ruth Watkins trudged down the street of the small Belgium village. Snow was piled around the doorways, even though it was only November. She hated to think of what weather December and January would bring…if her unit was still set-up here.
The rumble of a motor caught her ear, and Ruth lifted her eyes from her shuffling steps. An ambulance had appeared at the other end of the town, coming to a slow stop in front of the single-story schoolhouse, that was serving as their hospital.
Quickening to a jog, Ruth crossed the deserted street and continued on with a renewed urgency. An ambulance meant more hurting soldiers who would need her medical care and bedside manner, as hopeless as the second was. Compared to the others, she felt terribly inadequate at comforting the fearful and reassuring the pained. How many times had she sought to calm a nightmare or ease a fear only to end up startling the man?
New patients for the makeshift hospital also meant more men who Ruth could question about a familiar name. To the U.S. Army her little brother Doug had been missing for months, but she knew without a shadow of a doubt that Doug’s Heavenly Father knew exactly where His child was…and she prayed he was still on this earth. Heaven would be glorious for Doug, but she couldn't bear to think of the pain it would bring to their dear Mama and Papa. To her own heart. To Mary, Doug’s high school sweetheart who awaited his return, a ring on her hand.
Even as she hunched her shoulders against the cold and pushed on, Ruth whispered a quick prayer for Doug’s safety. How wonderful it would be to hear from him by Christmas!
Reaching the hospital, Ruth brushed past the ambulance and sprinted up the steps to hold the door for the stretcher bearers.
“Thank you, Nurse.” The ambulance driver, who she recognized from previous encounters, tipped his head in her direction and smiled.
Ruth nodded in reply as her gaze fell to the man being toted into the building. What of his face and neck that was exposed to the elements was covered in white dressing. His left hand, in a white-knuckled fist, lay atop his chest.
“Burn patient,” the man spoke again, breaking uninvited into Ruth’s thoughts. “I don't think I'll ever get used to seeing all these messed up guys.”
Ruth lifted her eyes to the man’s face, startled by his honesty. “Me neither.”
Obviously uncomfortable at having brought attention to himself, he cleared his throat. “I'm Stephen, by the way.”
Ruth nodded and forced a smile. Why didn't this guy just get along with his business and leave her alone? When he continued to look at her, she straightened with a start. He probably expected her name in return.
“Oh, I'm Ruth. A pleasure to meet you, Stephen.” Now will you please get on about your work so I can get on about mine?
“The pleasure is all mine, Nurse Ruth.” He smiled and Ruth thought he might have bowed as well if he hadn't been carrying a stretcher.
The man at the wounded fellow’s feet cleared his throat, his impatience apparent.
“Oh, yes.” Stephen caught on. “Is there anywhere specific you would like him?”
Ruth pointed to the right side of the ward. “Over there near the stove should be fine.” Without another word, she hurried off through the front room to stow her coat in the back room.
The man – Stephen – made her curious with his sudden desire for small talk. Or maybe it wasn't so sudden… Was he the same one who had tried to strike up a conversation a few weeks ago?
Ruth shook her head as she moved back toward the ward. It didn't matter if he was. She would never consider a relationship at such an uncertain time. So why encourage the man’s attention?
Over the next few hours, the only doctor and his crew of seven nurses worked tirelessly over their patients, old and new. Night was falling when the nurses that Ruth’s shift had came to relieve grabbed their coats and wearily headed down the street to get some rest.
Ruth’s friend, Helen, approached, holding her hand to her head. “Ruth, hon, do I look all right to you?”
“Goodness, no! Helen Slivinski, you look dreadfully ill.”
Taking her by the arm, Ruth helped her friend over to a chair and held the back of her hand to the young woman’s forehead. “Doctor Franks! I'm afraid we have a sick nurse here.”
The doctor jogged over and inspected Helen, soon proclaiming her unfit for work and a danger to be around the men.
Ruth volunteered to walk her friend back to the nurses’ quarters to insure she got there safely. After seeing Helen indoors, Ruth tightened her arms across her abdomen and ran through the snowy night back toward the schoolhouse, in attempt to make up for the time lost on the way there. With Helen down, they were more short-handed than before. And more patients to take care of meant less time to sit and chat with them, asking after a Private Douglas Watkins.
When she entered through the backdoor of the makeshift hospital, Ruth quickly ditched her coat, washed up, and returned to her work.
“Nurse Ruth, could you give me a hand here?”
From where she sat, monitoring a patient's pulse, Ruth lifted her head at the doctor’s voice. One of the nurses that had been assisting the man had been called over to the other side of the ward, and he apparently still required a second set of hands.
“Coming, Doctor Franks.”
A moment later she approached the cot which the doctor stood over. Although closest to the stove, the patient was still shivering from the exposure to the winter temperatures that he had recently left. White, gauze bandages covered his neck, chest, the upper half of his right arm, and his entire head, leaving only a slit for his mouth. They didn't even leave a gap for him to see through…
Ruth winced, wondering what exactly that meant.
“If you wouldn't mind assisting me, I'm going to change the bandages on his neck and face…” Doctor Frank's handed Ruth a pair of snips. “Nurse Agnes helped me with his arm and chest, which looked all right all things considered. But we need to make sure he's not got an infection beginning anywhere. He certainly doesn't seem to be able to get warm.”
“Of course.” Ruth took the scissors from his hand and gently began undoing the bandages from the man’s neck. Raw, oozing skin and raised, white blistering was soon exposed. The soldier fisted his hands in the sheets and tried not to squirm, but the visible pulse in his neck revealed how much pain he was in.
“Hey, it's gonna be all right.” Ruthie whispered, looking down at the hidden face of the injured soldier. “You can tell me if I'm pulling too harshly, okay?”
The expected answer never came. Ruth glanced over at the doctor who was now picking bits of burned skin from the side of the man’s neck. “What's his name?”
“Don't know. No ID.”
“Has he spoken?”
“No…I don't know if he can't or just…well…”
The doctor never finished his phrase, but Ruth understood what he didn't say. Some horrors could not be explained in mere words.
Breathing slowly, Ruth turned back to the task at hand. The soldier still trembled, probably from a combination of cold and pain, though she couldn't be sure.
At Doctor Frank's nodding, she tugged a piece of gauze free from his chin, wincing when the soldier’s teeth ground together. Her heart broke for him, for his pain now and from here forward. These burns wouldn't just go away without leaving some horrible scars.
Ruth studied the white bandaging covering the man’s face, noting that his eyes were completely encased. A glance at her hand, then back to his face. That would not be the time to mess up.
“Doctor, I…” She laid the scissors on the tray on the edge of the bed and looked up. “I'd rather you tended to his eyes. If you don't mind.”
Doctor Franks nodded and took a pair of tweezers from the tray. “That's fine. You may need to hold him still, anyway.”
As the doctor peeled away a piece of gauze from over his eyes, the soldier’s hand fumbled through the sheets at his side. Before Ruth could ask him what was wrong, he found her hand and latched onto it. She winced, painfully aware of her pathetic attempts to calm hurting patients in the past.
The doctor looked away from what he was doing long enough to glance down and give a grim nod.
Ruth swallowed back her fears of inadequacy and patted the soldier’s arm with her free hand. “Now, you're going to be just fine. Doctor Franks is looking after you, and he's the best doc around. Just think, you could be in the States by Christmas.”
He didn't answer – just as Ruth had feared. She prayed it wasn't because he couldn't, but who knew what those layers of gauze had hidden.
As the bandages were pulled away and the soldier’s face exposed, Ruth’s tender heart ached more and more for him. The left side of his face was all right for the most part, but the right side was sorely disfigured. He'd lost his eye on that side, leaving behind a sunken hole surrounded by burns and scar tissue.
When Ruth realized she was fighting back tears, she forced herself to look away from the doctor’s methodical movements. She would never get used to seeing such destruction as the war had brought, but she also never let these things get to her and mess with her heart. Why would this case be any different? I hope I'm not contracting Helen’s illness…
Her eyes landed on the young soldier’s hand, tightly gripping her own. Something about him reminded her of her missing little brother, prompting her to whisper a silent prayer. Oh, Doug, please be safe. Wherever you are tonight.
“That's about all I can do here. It doesn't look to be infected though.” Doctor Franks peeled back the last strip of gauze from the soldier’s face. “Let’s see if we can get him cleaned up a little bit.”
Studying the patient’s face, Ruth knew what he meant. The remaining eye stayed matted shut, the brow furrowed. Ruth shifted to better view the normal side of the young man’s face. A sprinkle of freckles dotted his left temple…freckles that were present nowhere else on his face, now or before the war damage.
Something clogged her throat, and Ruth had to look away. I think I know those freckles…
No. Of course she didn't. The lighting on this side of the room wasn't good enough to tell much, anyway. This was nonsense. Wasn't it? The soldier squeezed her hand as if he knew of the battle warring in her heart right now.
“Can he hear, Doctor?” She asked of the man standing on the other side of the bed, waiting and watching in silence.
“Yes…he did as we asked when Nurse Agnes was helping me. Except when asked to reply verbally, of course.”
The doctor moved the dish of water into Ruth’s reach and stepped back. “I'll let you tend to getting that eye open and surveying the damage there. I'm going to step out for a minute; send Clara or Agnes after me if you need anything.”
“Yes, Doctor.” Ruth dipped the edge of a towel in the warm water and began cleansing the man’s face. The clear ooze and blood from the raw burns had matted his eyelashes to his cheek and left bits of cottony fuzz stuck to his chin. He winced as she worked, but stayed mostly still.
The more she cleaned his face, studied the shape of his eyes and jawline, the more sure she became of the validity of her earlier speculation.
Setting aside the towel and basin, Ruth sank to her knees at the young man’s side. “If you can hear me, I want you to squeeze my hand.”
The fingers wrapped around hers tightened, bringing a smile to the nurse’s face. “Wonderful! Now I want you to try to open your left eye.”
A moment of nothing, and then the eyelashes wiggled and the eye opened, revealing a pool of hidden blue. The soldier blinked a few times, watching her.
So she'd been right. Ruth’s breath caught in her throat and the marred face blurred in her vision. She forced herself through a series of deep breaths as the single eye remained focused on her. Only when she couldn't bear the silence any longer did she laid her hand on his arm and inch closer. “Doug? Doug, do you know me?”
The single eye closed again and a lone tear slid down the young man’s face. Just when she was seriously thinking he wouldn't speak to her, his groggy voice broke the late night stillness that had fallen over the ward. “I thought I heard your voice earlier, and then when the doctor called you by name, I was sure.”
Ruth felt a tear travel down her cheek as she recalled seeing Doug as he was being carried in. Only God knew what this night was going to bring about when she prayed for her little brother while jogging down the snowy street hours prior.
“We've been worried about you.” When Doug’s eye opened again, Ruth leaned forward and gently kissed his cheek. “What did you think you were doing – going missing like that?”
His face tightened into what could almost be called a smile. “Ah, just giving you a scare that you probably didn't deserve. How's Mary? And Mama and Papa?”
“They’re alright, as far as I know. Just worried about you.” She gently stroked his hair back on the side of his face with few burns, quickly withdrawing her hand when he winced. “I haven't had a recent letter though. We were moving around a lot before settling in here.”
Eye closed, Doug was quiet for so long that Ruth began to wonder if he had fallen asleep clinging to her hand. She knew she should soon set to work with fresh bandages, but she couldn't bear to inflict more pain on him right now.
The childhood nickname that he had always used and she had always secretly despised now brought a smile to her lips.“Yes?” She lifted her eyes back to his face, the one eye squinting at her.
“How bad am I burnt?”
Her heart thumped wildly, and she swallowed. Oh, Doug, why do you have to ask? “Well, the side of your face and neck, most of your right arm. And then–”
“That's not what I ask.”
Her words faltered and she ducked her head from his gaze. No, it wasn't what he had asked, but she’d hoped her words would deter him from the truth he sought after.
“I can feel where; I want to know how bad.” A pause, a switch to a lower voice. “It'll scar, won't it?”
Strengthened by his steadiness through the tough words, Ruth faced her brother and nodded. “Yes, it'll scar.” Scarred…you're hardly recognizable now, little brother… But I can't tell you that. I'm supposed to protect you…not bring you hurt… Oh, my Doug…
She was pulled back to his bedside by her brother’s next question.
“What will they think of me now, Ruthie?” He asked, his voice low and rough, almost breaking. Instead of looking at her, he now stared up at the ceiling, as if meeting her gaze would make it worse or harder to take.
Praying for the right words, Ruth squeezed his hand and attempted to encourage him. “They’ll love you just as much as they ever have. Mary will smile and kiss you – stop long enough to blush about it – and then say you're the most handsome fella’ she's ever seen. Papa…well, Papa won't say much, but you'll know just by looking at him how special you are to his dear heart. And Mama,” Ruth grinned, “She’ll say you're just a sick little boy who needs lookin’ after.”
The left side of Doug’s mouth twitched. “Remember that time when I was down sick, only four or five years old, and–”
“And Mama was working the field with Papa because it had been such a hard year so I looked after you?” Ruth reached over and gently laid her hand on his burned fingers.
“Yeah.” Doug tried to squeeze her hand that held his, scorched fingers curling around the side of her hand. “I knew from then you'd make a wonderful nurse.”
Ruth smiled and shook her head. “I don't feel like a very good nurse sometimes. But thank you; you always were my chief supporter.”
“Trust me, Ruthie…” Doug’s voice grew softer. “You’re a wonderful nurse.”
“Nurse Ruth, is everything alright here?”
Ruth whirled around when Doctor Franks appeared on the other side of Doug’s cot. “Doctor, yes! Actually…I've been able to identify our patient here.”
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Thoughts on the story so far? What's your favorite Christmas story?