Disclaimer: Daria and associated characters are owned by MTV. This is fan fiction written for entertainment only. No money or other negotiable currency or goods have been exchanged. Original characters and plot copyright Richard J. Lobinske. 2008. The characters of Reese Wyatt, Jocelyn Wyatt, Jerica Wyatt and Paula Trainor created by Brother Grimace.
This is the sixty-third story in the Falling into College series.
Riding in the lead humvee of a patrol column, Cpl. Derek Adler scanned the land ahead for anything suspicious in the stark, rugged landscape of rural Afghanistan. Seven months in combat had sharpened his eye and had brought out the decisiveness within him. The new corporal stripes on his uniform were a testament to that, as well as his command of the squad's second section. Today, they were patrolling outside of a small village, with scattered homestead farms here and there along the dirt road. Taliban insurgents had been recently active in the area and they were searching for information or clues about where they had been or where they were going. Derek had shifted his vision downward to check their position on the vehicle's GPS unit when he heard a bang in front of them. He looked up to see a puff of smoke along the road about thirty meters ahead where a landmine had exploded. Motion to the right caught his eye and he started to raise his M-16 at a woman running from a nearby house. He lowered it slightly when it was clear she was running toward the blast and not them, and lowered it completely when she stopped at the fallen body of a small child.
He tapped the driver, Pfc. Saunders, saying, “Stop.” Derek grabbed the radio and called to the second humvee in line, “Collins, grab your kit, we need a medic up here.”
Keeping his weapon at the ready, he ran up to the weeping woman, who was holding an unconscious, blood-stained girl of about six.
Pfc. Collins reached them and showed his kit to the woman to display a red cross and red crescent taped to the lid. Frightened, she warily let him start examining the child.
Derek knelt and carefully scanned the area for threats among the other civilians that had appeared to see what was happening. Behind him, the fifty-caliber gunner on his and the third humvee did the same.
After a couple minutes, Collins spoke to the woman in broken Farsi and then told Derek, “I’ve done what I can, but she's in bad shape. We need to get her to a real doctor now or she won’t make it. We need to call in a chopper.”
Derek remembered their position just before the landmine went off. “There’s a Doctors Without Borders clinic about five minutes from here in the village. We can get her there faster than Camp Raptor can send out a chopper.”
"What are we waiting for?"
The medic carefully told the woman what they planned before he picked up the child and started carrying her to the second humvee. The woman turned and yelled to another woman watching among the crowd before following him. Through his broken understanding of the language, Derek could figure out that she was telling her sister to watch her other children and to tell her husband what had happened when he got back from the fields.
Derek reached into the back of his vehicle and pulled out a spare set of body armor. “I’m glad that reporter left this for us when he went home.” He ran back to the second humvee and said, “We still have to go through some dangerous territory, do you have spare armor?”
The driver laughed. “Not a chance.”
“Damn.” He ran to the third and yelled to the driver while holding the body armor, “Got a spare?” The driver shook his head.
He went back to the second vehicle and handed the armor to the mother, motioning for her to put it on. Not exactly understanding why, she did anyway while he emptied the contents of his body armor, placing the items in the cargo pockets of his pants. Derek pulled the vest off and tossed it to Collins, “Put this around the kid in case we run into any more trouble.”
He looked back. “Adler, what about you? If it hits the fan, you might as well be bare-assed naked.”
“Do you really want the kid or her mother to get hurt any more?”
“Understood, but I don't like it.”
“I don't either, but I don't see any other way. Now, let's move out.”
He sprinted back to the lead humvee and climbed in. Before he was fully seated, Derek pointed out the clinic's location on the GPS map display and told the driver, “We’re making a detour.”
"Yes, sir," the driver said.
The column started at high speed and Derek got on the radio, "Coyote, Coyote, this is Roadrunner Three."
A voice on the radio replied, "Go ahead, Roadrunner Three, this is Coyote."
"We're taking a critically injured civilian to the DWB clinic at grid coordinate 37-05. ETA is five minutes."
"We have reports of enemy activity near that position."
"We can have a medivac chopper there in ten minutes."
"Pvt. Collins said the civilian needs a doctor right away and can’t wait, that's why we're going to the clinic."
"Understood, Roadrunner Three. We're sending backup for you, just in case."
"Backup on the way, understood. Roadrunner Three clear."
The trip seemed to take much longer than five minutes as Derek eyed anything that looked even remotely threatening. His nerves got on edge after he saw a couple of suspicious looking men disappear as they drove by. Finally, the small convoy was in the village. They turned at an intersection and the clinic came into view about a block away. At the same time, Pvt. Petersen on the turret .50 cal called, "RPG!" and began firing.
Derek saw where the burst hit an insurgent, who fell before being able to fire. Motion to the right caught his eye. "Dammit!" he yelled as he lifted his rifle to target another man with a rocket propelled grenade. A plume of smoke erupted from the launch tube as Derek squeezed his trigger. He saw the man begin to stagger back, but he saw no more as the back of the humvee was shattered by the detonating projectile. He felt dozens of stabs in his back and arms as the blast threw him forward against the dashboard.
"What's burning up this desert highway? Aliens in drag! Next, on Sick, Sad World!"
Daria and Karen lounged on opposite ends of the sofa, each with stocking feet propped up on their small, magazine-covered coffee table. Daria said, "You know, they really seem to be lame this season."
"Yeah," Karen said. "I guess real life's doing a better job of weirding us out than they are."
The phone rang and Daria leaned forward, fishing it out of the pile on the table. "Hello." In response to the man's question, she said, "I'm sorry, but you have the wrong number; there's no Mrs. Adler here."
Karen turned white and slowly turned around.
Daria listened more and said, "Yes, that is this number and a Karen lives here…"
Karen croaked and asked, "Is that a call from the Army?"
Daria shot Karen a quizzical look and then said, "Are you from the Army?"
When Daria nodded yes after hearing the answer, tears started to roll down Karen's face and she said, "It's for me."
Daria passed the phone to her roommate, concerned for her friend's obvious distress and confused by the call.
The young brunette said, "This is Karen." She gasped and slumped back as she listened to the phone. After a couple minutes, she said, "Thank you," and hung up.
Daria asked, "Karen, what's going on?"
"Derek's been hurt…badly. He's at a hospital in Germany. Once he's stable, he'll be sent to Walter Reed."
"I'm so sorry, Karen."
"Thanks. At least…at least he's alive."
Daria moved next to her friend and wordlessly held her as she cried.
When Karen's sobs had worked themselves out, she said, "Thanks."
"That's what friends are for." After several seconds of silence, Daria asked, "Why did that officer call you Mrs. Adler?"
Karen looked surprised for a moment before abruptly standing and going to her room. After taking something from a drawer in her jewelry box, she came back out and said, “I haven’t been completely honest with you.” Karen hesitated, and then confidently put a white gold band on next to her engagement ring. “Derek and I weren’t just engaged before he shipped out, we were married.”
Stunned, Daria said, “What?"
Karen came back to the sofa and sat down. "It's best if I tell you the whole story."
Looking out of the restaurant window at the brilliantly lit skyline across the Charles River, Karen joked, "This almost feels like a honeymoon."
One hand fumbling in his pocket, Derek gulped and said, "Interesting take. Um…You're trying hard not to show it, but you're really worried about me coming back. I promise that I'm going to keep my helmet on and my head down. I want to come back."
She reached across the table to his free hand. "I know you will, but I can't help it. Sometimes keeping your head down isn't enough."
"I know, but somehow, I also know that I will be back. And…" He pulled a ring tied in blue ribbon from his pocket. "…That's why I'm doing this. Will you marry me?"
The slender gold band was set with two small diamonds that shimmered under the table's candlelight. Karen felt as if her heart had stopped while she held it up and became lost in thought as she considered what she'd most wished, as well as what she most dreaded. After an agonizing minute for Derek, she said, "On one condition."
"What's that?" he asked, almost petrified to hear the answer.
"If I have to go through all of the worry of waiting and not knowing if you're going to come back, I'll only do it as your wife, not your fiancée."
"That's a yes?"
"Only if we do it before you leave."
"Yes! Dear God, yes." He leaned across the table and kissed her.
They sat, staring at each other for a while to let their decision sink in. Derek finally said, "We've got a lot of work to do if we're going to pull this off. How long will it take your parents to get here?"
Karen's eyes grew wide. "Oh, damn. This is still planting season for sweet onions. They can't get away on this short of notice."
"They'll want to be there."
Karen remembered a story she'd heard from her grandmother and said, "I think I have an idea. One of the ground crew of my grandfather's bomber ran into a similar problem before he shipped out for England. Neither family could get there in time for a wedding."
"They got married at a Justice of the Peace and told their parents afterward. They weren't happy, but everyone got treated the same. Maybe we can do something like that."
"I don't know. My parents are going to be really upset, and I bet yours will too."
Karen nodded as she thought more about what she was proposing. "Mine will probably freak. Dad's had that whole 'walking his daughter down the aisle' fantasy."
Derek tilted his head. "You know, we don't have to tell them right away and then we can have a big wedding when I get back. Nobody will be the wiser and nobody will get their feelings hurt."
"Unless something happens to you."
"Let's hope we don't have to face that."
"Only as your wife," Karen said, putting the ring on her finger. "Let's do it."
Daria said, "So you've been married for almost eight months?"
"Since January 28th. We picked up the wedding bands that Monday morning and by noon, we were married. A couple of clerks in the court acted as witnesses."
Daria said, "Saving you from having to pick a Maid of Honor and Best Man."
"Daria, that's not why. If we were going to do this in secret, we had to keep it secret from everyone, even you and Jane. I'm sorry."
"I understand. I was only channeling my lack of decision on the same subject."
"I'd always assumed you'd pick Jane."
"I…find that I'm having a hard time choosing. Never mind that. What are you going to do now?"
"I need to get the nerve to call Derek's parents and tell them everything. After that, I have to do the same thing for my parents and then start packing."
"So that I can go to Bethesda as soon as I get word he's coming home. If I could get to Germany, I would."
The RPG hit threw the back of the humvee around, crashing it into a wall. Derek was dimly aware of Petersen screaming in the back of the vehicle and the driver yelling, "We've got to get you out of here!" while rifle fire echoed in the narrow street. Saunders reached over and pulled Derek across the seats and out of the driver's door, laying him on the ground between the vehicle and the building. Saunders then jumped back in the humvee and reemerged a few seconds later, dragging Petersen out and placing him on the ground next to Derek.
Forcing his head up, he saw Collins jump out of the second vehicle with his kit and yell, "Go!" to the driver. The humvee sped around the smoking wreckage and down the street toward the clinic while Collins ran to the wounded.
The gunfire quickly fell off after Collins began inspecting Derek and Petersen. The crew of the third humvee searched the area for any more insurgents and secured it. When Collins rolled him over to inspect the wounds, Derek screamed in pain as the adrenalin numbness wore off and he could feel the deep punctures made by RPG casing and fragments of the humvee in his back.
A doctor patted Derek's shoulder and said, "It's okay, Adler. I'm only checking your dressings."
"Huh?" Prostrate on a hospital bed, it took Derek several seconds to realize where he was.
"It was a dream," the doctor said. "Not uncommon around here."
"Things look good. No signs of infection and you're healing nicely."
Derek asked, "Petersen?"
"Pvt. Petersen is right next to us. He should be back to his unit in four to six weeks."
"No, soldier. You're not going back to the line. You're going home."
"G…good thing the taxi dropped us off at your place," CC said as she and Jane stumbled up the stairs, holding each other semi-steady while a sober Nell followed them and hoped that they didn't fall.
"No probl...ablem," Jane said. "You pay them enough and they'll drop you off anywhere."
"Think we'll sober up in time for happy hour?"
It took Jane two tries to get the door open. Inside, they found Karen sitting on the sofa with Bump in her lap, purring and rubbing her chin against Karen's arm while she talked on the phone. "Mom, we'll have a ceremony for everyone when Derek's out of the hospital and we can get everyone together. You can plan stuff to your heart's content." After a pause to listen, she added, "Maybe during winter break. I can't say anything more until we can discuss it. Yes, Mom, I'll keep you updated along with Miriam as I hear anything. Thanks for being so understanding. Bye."
CC straightened and said, "Uh-oh."
"Huh?" Jane asked.
Nell said, "What Karen just said."
"Somethin' happened to Derek. Come on," CC said, nudging Jane.
"Uh-oh," Jane said as the gravity of the situation dawned on her.
The three went over to Karen and CC placed an unsteady hand on her shoulder. "How ya doin'?"
Karen turned and looked at them. "Scared. I've had a couple of good crying jags on Daria's shoulder, but I'm hanging in there."
"Good for you," CC said and patted her shoulder. "Got another for you.
Jane said, "Same here."
"Me, too," said Nell.
"I appreciate it and if you hang around, I'll be taking you up on it and giving Daria a break."
"Deal." Jane leaned against the couch to support herself and said in an attempt to cheer her friend, "So…you moved your wedding day. Getting a jump on Daria?"
Karen held up her hand to show the wedding band. "No…I got a jump on Daria."
Daria came out of her room and waited a few moments until the end of Karen's story before saying, "Jane, glad you made it back. CC, Nell, good to see you, too. Since you're here, we have some planning to do."
Still with Bump in her lap, Karen asked, "What did she say?"
Daria nodded. "Amy says that you and Derek's folks are more than welcome to stay in their guest rooms."
"Oh, that will help so much. Thank you."
"Rooms?" CC asked, sounding clearer than when she'd arrived, but still under the influence. "How big is the place?"
Daria said. "Do you remember the huge wedding Jane, Karen and I went to a year ago?"
"Oh yeah, the event of the season," CC said.
"That's Amy," Daria confirmed. "She moved into Reese's place in Georgetown, which is actually small by his family's standards. Since it's not far from Bethesda, Karen will be close to Derek when he arrives stateside."
Jane was also slowly sobering and seated on the sofa. "Planning?"
"We need to figure out a way to get class notes and stuff to Karen while she's at Amy's. She doesn't need to fall behind on top of everything else."
CC said, "Does your aunt have a high speed Internet connection?"
"How about digitally recording the lectures?" CC asked. "We can send them as MP3s."
"That could work," Daria said. "Do you have a recorder?"
"I have one," Nell said. "I hated trying to keep track of tiny little tapes. But for something like this, I can part with it for a while."
Daria said, "Great. We'll need to figure out a way to get it to and from each of Karen's classes. Maybe I can put Michael and his friends to work on that."
"We could scan notes from someone in her classes and send those," Jane said. "But we'd better get someone with good handwriting."
Karen nodded. "I can ask around my classes."
"Check with your professors, too," Daria said, "Maybe they will give you copies of their notes."
Daria said, "I'll take care of collecting everything and sending it."
Derek enjoyed the feel of fresh, clean sheets and a soft pillow against his cheek. He used it to take his mind off of the broad stinging and itching of his back. An older Master Sergeant, one of those men troops often called a "zebra" for the long line of service hash marks on their sleeves below their sergeant stripes, sat on a chair next to the bed. "Tomorrow, you will be placed on a transfer ambulance at 0730 and your flight stateside will depart at 0900. Have a safe trip, son."
Derek nodded his head. "Thanks, sarge."
In the next bed, Pvt. Petersen said, "Lucky bastard. I only get some lying around time before I go back to Camp Raptor."
Derek managed a laugh. "Yeah, this was all part of my devious plan to get sent home."
"I'll tell that to Saunders."
"Speaking of Saunders, make sure you thank him for me."
"And check on the little girl. I want to know what happened to her."
"I will," Petersen said. "And you make sure you take care of that wife of yours."
Monday afternoon, Daria had rolled her chair back from her workstation and was giving her hands and wrists a break from keyboarding. The story she was editing was over half done and she felt like she was making good progress on the day.
Since she was already taking a break, Daria didn't worry about answering her cell phone. "Hello."
On the other end, Karen said, "Dammit, I've got to get ready to go. Derek's already at Walter Reed."
"What?" Daria asked. "I thought that he was going to be staying in Germany a couple of days before the Army flew him back."
"He was stable and there was a flight available. The Army left a phone message for me at home. I caught it when I stopped by to change before going to the zoo."
"Okay, I'll call Amy and let her know you're on the way. Michael agreed to help with getting your classes recorded and he's volunteered Jack and Sean. Clarice is also in. She's going to pick up handouts and notes from your professors."
"Tell everyone thanks. Daria, this means a lot. I don't know when I'll be back, but…"
"Get going, Karen. I know I'd be in a hurry."
"Miriam's on her way here and we'll ride down together. Derek's father will stay home with Jason since he can't afford to miss any school right now. They'll try to drive down or something this weekend."
"We'll take care of everything here. Bye."
Daria pulled up another number from the phone’s memory and hit the dial button.
After a couple rings, Amy answered, "Dr. Barksdale."
"Hi Amy, it's Daria."
"Hey Daria. How's your friend holding up?"
"Thrown for a bit of a loop. The Army surprised her and flew Derek back early. As soon as his mom gets to our place, Karen's driving down. It will be just the two of them."
"I'll have Mrs. Tarigama prepare their rooms and I'll stay up to let them in. You gave her my number, right?"
"She has it. Thanks, Amy."
"Not a problem. How are plans at your end?"
"I think we have a handle on things." Daria looked down the office at another cubicle. "There's just one more thing I need to take care of."
"Okay, do what you need to do and I'll talk to you later. Goodbye."
Daria closed her phone and slipped it back into her pocket. It's going to happen one way or the other, so I'd better make it happen under the best terms I can get and I better do it now. After a deep breath, she stood and crossed the room to Jeff's cubicle, knocking on the divider when she got there.
He looked up from his computer and said, "Yes?"
"Jeff, I've got a story for your beat."
Karen glanced at Miriam Adler asleep in the passenger seat of her light truck and thought how small and fragile the woman seemed in the dim light of passing streetlamps. Shifting her attention back to driving, Karen scanned mail boxes in front of immaculate homes for the right address. Passing a tall fence of Victorian wrought iron, she spotted the number and pulled off of the street, stopping in front of an elaborate, matching gate. Karen checked the note she'd jotted down while talking to Amy from a rest stop pay phone and punched the numbers on a keypad. The gate opened with the quiet whir of an electric motor, allowing Karen through to a sweeping driveway that ran in front of a columned entrance of Amy's new home. "That's not a house, it's a mansion," Karen said.
With her right hand, Karen shook Miriam's shoulder and said, "We're here."
Miriam sat up and rubbed her face. "I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I haven't been much company."
"I had the radio to keep me awake."
"Oh my," Miriam said, seeing the mansion. "Are you sure you're at the right place?"
"If I'm at the wrong place, then they need to change their gate code."
The front doors of the house opened and a middle-aged Japanese man came out, followed by Amy, looking both bemused and resigned, and her husband of one year, Reese.
When Karen stepped out of her truck, Reese said, "Karen, Miriam, welcome. Please come in. Mr. Tarigama will park your car and take care of your luggage."
Mr. Tarigama hurried to the truck and patiently waited by the door. When Karen moved aside, he got into the driver's seat. After Miriam had gotten out, he gave them a polite smile and drove the truck around to the separate garage building behind the main house.
Amy stepped forward and warmly told Miriam, "I know, it takes some getting used to. Just roll with it."
Miriam nodded and said, "Thank you, Mrs. Barksdale. Oh, and you too, Mr. Barksdale."
Chuckling, Reese stepped forward and extended his hand. "Reese Wyatt. Pleased to meet you."
Seeing Miriam's confused look, Amy said, "I kept my maiden name so that lunk-headed academics wouldn't be confused about searching for my publications under two names."
"I wonder if Daria will keep hers," Karen said.
"Speaking of which, I understand you've been up to the same trick, in your own way," Amy said.
"Just a temporary measure," Karen said. "Now that things are out in the open, I'm Mrs. Myerson-Adler."
"Either way, come in," Amy said. "Your rooms are ready and Mrs. Tarigama made some light snacks for you to enjoy after your long trip."
Karen gasped when they entered the high-ceilinged parlor and she couldn't resist saying, "Tara."
"I had the same reaction," Amy said.
"It looks like we have a couple sets of curious eyes up on the stairs," Miriam said.
Hiding behind the railing were twin 5-year old girls, dressed in pajamas and with their blond hair falling free around their shoulders. They giggled at each other and then looked back down at everyone.
"Pardon me." Amy sternly looked at the girls and said, "Jerica, Jocelyn, you're supposed to be in bed."
"You were at Mommy and Daddy's wedding," one of the girls said, though Karen, for the life of her, couldn't remember which was which.
"Yes she was, Jocelyn," Reese said. "Now, come down here so that you can say a proper hello to our guests before you go back to bed, where you belong."
Crossing from the master bath to the bedroom after preparing to go to bed, Reese said, "This has you worried about the noises we're starting to hear about Iraq."
Waiting on the bed, Amy admitted, "A little, but I worry more about you flying in those hurricane hunters."
He sat on the bed and pulled the fine linen sheet over his legs. "Mother Nature is more unpredictable than SAM gunners."
"Still, I wonder how I would be holding up if something happened to you."
"You're strong, just like she is."
"Am I? Really? Or do I just seem like it on the surface?"
Reese turned off the bedside lamp and slipped his arms around Amy. "I think you are."
"I hope we won't have to find out."
After helping Mrs. Tarigama prepare breakfast, Jocelyn and Jerica ate as they watched the other adults in the household prepare for the day. Also at the large dining table were Karen and Miriam. Unaccustomed to having almost everything done for them and worried about what the day would bring, they ate mostly in silence after Mrs. Tarigama and the girls set out the meal.
To make conversation, Reese joined them at the table. "How are you doing today?"
"Scared," Karen admitted.
"So am I," Miriam said. She moved her gaze to the twins to change the subject. "You have two very bright girls."
"Yes, and that means that they can be a challenge to keep busy. One of the perks of being married to a professor is that the girls can attend the university's pre-school. There are even some faculty members that come in from time to time to teach or give presentations to the children."
Moving around the room as she gathered her things, Amy said, "Yeah, they like the step up from teaching freshmen."
Karen giggled at the comment. "Good one. I needed that."
Amy took a hand-sized placard from her purse and placed it on the table next to Karen. "My friend Paula is lending you this parking pass. She said it would make things easier."
Curious, Miriam asked, "How could she get a pass?"
Amy said, "Paula's a brigadier general in the air force and the Dean of the Curtis E. LeMay College of Military Sciences at Tennyson. She has a few connections."
Karen said, "Paula was originally going to be Amy's Maid of Honor, but got called away on duty at the last minute. That's how Daria got volunteered."
"I see," Miriam said. "Amy, please tell your friend, 'Thank you,' for us. That's very sweet of her."
Amy smirked. "Oh, I'll be happy to pass that along. 'Sweet' isn't a term normally used to describe Paula."
As soon as the guard at the main gate of Walter Reed Army Medical Center saw the parking pass in Karen's truck window, he saluted and after he opened the gate to let them through, gave her a brief set of directions to the indicated parking area.
Karen said, "Thank you," and pulled ahead. Instead of going to the main parking garage, the guard's directions led them to a smaller parking lot not far from the main entrance and protected by another guard house. The guard there saluted and passed them through the gate without a word.
Miriam said, "That seemed very easy."
"Yeah, really easy. I guess having a general's parking pass makes a big difference."
It was almost noon before Karen and Miriam were finished being logged in as visitors and finding out the location of Derek's room. In the ward's small waiting room, they took a seat to await a briefing from one of the doctors.
"Does it always take that long?" Miriam asked.
"From what I experienced when we were signing me up as Derek's wife, getting someone into the system takes a while, but things usually go smoother after that."
After about fifteen minutes, a stocky black man wearing a while lab coat over a duty uniform came over to them. "Karen and Miriam Adler?"
Karen nodded. "Yes."
He pulled over another seat and sat down. "I'm Major Moseley and I've been reviewing Cpl. Adler's charts."
"How serious?" Karen asked.
"The explosion in his vehicle sprayed him with shrapnel in the back, right side and upper right arm. Most serious were multiple internal injuries because he wasn't wearing body armor."
"What?!" Karen exclaimed. "Why the hell not?"
"I don't know, ma'am."
"Sorry," she said. "He promised to be careful."
"This is a difficult time for loved ones, I understand," the major said.
Fearful, Miriam asked, "What kind of internal injuries?"
Moseley double-checked the chart in his hand. "He lost his right kidney, spleen, part of his liver and part of his small intestine." Karen and Miriam tightly held each other's hands as the doctor continued, "For the most part, Cpl. Adler will be able to continue a normal life, though he'll never be cleared for combat operations again. Because of the loss of his spleen, he will need several important vaccinations before discharge and will need to be keenly aware of any infection possibility. Also before discharge, he will be issued a medical alert bracelet and a national medical ID card stating his condition. He is currently on a conservative antibiotic regime due to the risk of post-operative infection from the loss of his spleen and the puncture of his intestines, as well as possible battlefield contamination. His diet will have to be modified to not overwork his remaining kidney. There may be a loss of nutrient absorption capability because of the removal of part of his small intestine, so diet will have to compensate for that."
Karen said, "I know someone who might be able to help with the last part; she's lived with something similar for years."
"Any good support network you can find, use it. This will be difficult for both of you. Not only will your husband be dealing with his physical injuries, but also psychological. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is something that I consider likely."
"What can I do?" Miriam asked.
"Be there for your son and daughter-in-law. Karen, are your parents nearby?"
"No, they're in Georgia. Miriam and I both live in Massachusetts. I go to college at Raft."
Moseley nodded. "Don't be afraid to call them when you need to, but your mother-in-law will be closer and you two will need each other, as well as any other family and friends."
"My roommates are taking care of sending class notes and handouts to me, and they're even recording lectures."
"You're a lucky girl." He stood and motioned for Karen and Miriam to do the same. "I'm going to gather some literature for you, but right now, I assume you want to see Cpl. Adler."
"Please," Karen said, pleading.
Michael slowed his fast walk across campus and said, "Yes?"
"Jeff Olson with The Mast. Can I ask you a few questions?"
"Sure," Michael said, resuming his old pace.
Trying to keep up, Jeff said, "Can you stop for a moment?"
"Sorry, but no." Michael held up a digital audio recorder. "I need to get this across campus to my friend Jack and then I have to catch a bus to work. I don't have time to stop."
"Is that to record classes for Ms. Karen Myerson?"
"You know it is, Jeff. Daria told you."
"Okay, I'm confirming that it's to record classes for Karen. I have to go to work, so Jack will ferry it to her next class, then on to Daria."
"That's a lot of work for one person."
"That's what friends do."
"Have you heard any word about Derek Adler's condition?"
"Nothing more than that he was hurt bad enough to be brought back."
"Do you think he's a hero?"
"I know he's a good man doing something important that neither you nor I can fully understand. The only thing that he places above his duty is Karen." Having reached his destination, Michael stopped next to a young man with brown hair and wearing a gray trench coat. He handed him the recorder and said, "Here you go, Jack. Thanks."
"No prob," Jack said. "Who's your tagalong?"
"Jeff Olson," Jeff said. "I'm with The Mast. Can I ask you a few questions?"
"As long as you don't mind smartass answers," Jack replied.
"I need to get going," Michael said. "See you later, Jack. Good luck with the story, Jeff."
Lying on his stomach with his head turned to the side, Derek held a folded newspaper in his left hand, trying to read it. "This sucks," he muttered.
A soft gasp, followed by a long-dreamed of voice behind him saying, "Derek," made him set the paper aside. "Karen, I missed you."
She ran around the bed to the side he was facing. "I've missed you so much!" she said, crouching to hold his free hand and kiss him.
He held her hand tight and said, "I love you."
"I love you."
Miriam gave them several moments together before coming forward. "Welcome home, Derek."
"Mom," he said, carefully moving his head to look at her. "I'm glad to see you. I'm sorry you had to come all the way down. Before shipping out, I'd requested to have any needed long-term convalescence in Boston. I don't know why they sent me here."
"It doesn't matter. We'd have gone to wherever they sent you," Karen said. Still holding his hand, she rubbed his wedding band and let him see hers. "Everyone knows."
"Your father and I approve," she said, resting her hand on theirs. "We're glad to have Karen in the family."
"Thanks," he said. Acknowledging that Karen had noticed his band, Derek then added, "You can't hide something like that from your buddies, so I didn't try. They knew the whole time."
"I thought Daria was going to have a cow," Karen said, generating a light laugh from Derek that immediately caused him to flinch. "Sorry."
"Don't worry, I needed a laugh."
"Derek, you're not getting out of a ceremony," Miriam said. "Maddie and I have already started planning."
Karen looked up with a face that said, "Boy, have they started planning."
"I surrender," he said.
"We can work out the details later," Karen said. Her eyes becoming stern and worried, she then said, "Derek, why weren't you wearing your body armor?"
Derek closed his eyes and slowly shook his head. "We were in disputed territory when a little girl somehow set off a mine aimed at my column. We had to get her and her mother to a hospital fast. Our help made them just as much of a target as us and we only had one set of spare armor."
"So you gave them yours."
"Karen, I was in the lead humvee and we would've been the one to hit the mine. I couldn't let anything else happen to them."
"So, what did happen to them?"
"I don't know. I was hit before we got there. I hope they made it."
Karen pressed her face against his hand. "I'm just glad you're alive and won't be sent back there."
Mixed emotions played across Derek's face as he shifted to bring his face next to hers.
Miriam asked, "I suppose this means that you'll be out of the National Guard."
He looked over Karen's head toward his mother. "I can finish out my enlistment stateside doing admin."
"Oh, I see."
"Mom, I want to finish. I left some good friends back in Afghanistan. If I can support them from here, I will."
On her way to her desk, Daria stopped at Jeff's and said, "I thought you would've assigned one of your staff reporters to Karen and Derek's story."
Jeff shrugged. "It's good to keep your hand in the writing end of the business and stay in practice. Besides, this story has a lot of potential and I might be able to sell it to the Boston Planet. More coverage for your friends and I get a good clip." Seeing the look on Daria's face, Jeff then said, "You don't trust me."
She said, "We're not exactly on the best of terms."
"No, we're not," he agreed. "But this isn't about that. This is about a local student and soldier wounded overseas and how others are pulling together to help him and his wife. Including you."
"Look, Karen's my friend and you seem to be thinking about how to add this to your resume."
"This isn't a hatchet job. The story makes Raft look good and it makes Boston look good. It deserves a wider audience. Trust me on this. I know what I’m doing."
Hesitant, Daria said, "Okay."
Jeff nodded. "If you please, I have some calls to make about the story."
Daria turned, continued on to her cubicle and had a seat. "I hope I can trust him."
Sitting at Reese's desk in the home office with Jerica and Jocelyn seated to either side, Karen took a break from following one of the recorded lectures on the attached class notes. Gazing around, she saw that for the most part, the room looked like something out of the 1940s with the exception of the computer monitors and keyboards on each of two heavy oak desks. The CPUs were hidden under the desks, along with the printers and scanners.
Jerica asked, "Is he always boring?"
Karen smiled. "No, sometimes he's worse."
"Worse?" Jocelyn said.
"Part of the price you pay for college," Karen said. "Ask your mother, I'm sure she has some good stories."
"Don't get me started," Amy said from the doorway. "I hope the girls aren't disturbing you."
"Trust me; they're much better behaved than Daria and Jane."
"Glad to hear my niece is misbehaving some. It's good for her. Have you had any more birthday adventures with her?"
Reminded of the strange events of Daria's 19th birthday, Karen shook her head. "No, and I'm just as happy I haven't."
Amy nodded and then said, "Are Daria's academic care packages working?"
"It took me a couple of days to get used to stuff, but I'm able to keep up, I think. The downside is that I can't do labs online, so I'll have to make them up when I get back."
"I have to admit to a little professional curiosity. We've been talking about trying some distance learning classes in the department."
"I can see the appeal, doing things online is convenient, kind of like…" Karen's eyes flew open in panic. "Oh, no!"
The exclamation startled the twins, and Jocelyn said, "What's wrong?"
"The VMCAS deadline is next week!"
Amy asked, "What's that?"
"The Veterinary Medical College Application Service. They're a centralized application for a whole bunch of vet schools and the place to go for all the ones I'm trying for. If I miss the deadline, I'll have to wait another year to get into vet school."
"If it's an online application, what's the problem?"
"All of my supporting docs are on my computer at home," Karen said.
"Well, Daria or Jane can just e-mail them to you."
"Amy, I can barely find my own stuff on my computer; anyone else would be hopelessly lost. Besides, some of the stuff I have written down and never had a chance to put on the computer."
"Let me guess, your paper filing is as bad as your computer filing."
Amy came forward and rested her hands on Karen's shoulders. "I’m sure Derek will understand if you have to run back to Boston for a while."
"Oh, I know he will, but I don't want to leave him."
"Then why don't you give Daria a chance to pull things together for you?"
Daria cradled the phone against her shoulder and stared at the monitor of Karen's computer. "No wonder you cuss at your computer so much. I can't find any sign of a file named 'horsecrap02' anywhere."
Still in the office, Karen said, "That has the list of all of my equestrian experience. It has to be there somewhere."
"Karen, I'm trying, but I just can't find it. Are you sure that's the file name?"
"Of course it is; what else would I call it?"
"I'll keep looking."
Next, Karen asked, "Has Jane had any luck?"
Daria peered over at Jane sitting cross-legged on the bed, surrounded by loose paper and swearing while looking through them. Daria said, "She's still looking, too."
After leaving her faculty office, Brig. Gen. Paula Trainor paused in the lobby to review the contents of the folder in her hand. Next to the elegant black woman was a Plexiglas topped pedestal that displayed a gleaming silver scale model of a B-29 Superfortress with a large, black "V" on the tail. The name "Nebraska Gal" was printed on a stripe that bisected a black and yellow winged sphere design just below and behind the greenhouse canopy, along with the aircraft number 63. Paula shook her head and said, "Amy, you and your nieces sure seem to draw attention. At least the youngest one hasn't…yet."
Paula closed the folder and said, "Time to go see Cpl. Adler."
Derek squirmed and tried to figure out how to salute when he saw the stars on Paula's collar. She nodded knowingly and said, "At ease, soldier."
"Uh, yes, general…" Remembering, Derek added, "You were at that big wedding last year. Daria had to step in for you when you were called away."
Paula sat next to the bed and left the folder closed on her lap. "Guilty. To answer your next question of why an air force general would visit an army corporal, there's two reasons. One, I make it a point to always pay a personal visit to service members I know that pass through here. They deserve that much respect."
"Thank you, ma'am."
"So, how are they treating you?"
Derek gave a faint shrug. "Okay, but I'd rather be back home."
"Understandable. I'm sure you appreciate your wife and mother being nearby, too."
"Yeah, it really means a lot, though I'm worried about my wife missing college classes."
"My friend Amy says she's getting help with that."
"Yeah, but still…"
"To be honest, I'd be worried, too." Paula held up the folder. "There's also a second reason I'm here. Besides my responsibilities as a dean at Tennyson, I also have certain other assignments. It seems your case has drawn some media attention."
"No, I'm not, especially when it involves a reporter for your college's paper managing to contact your lieutenant in Afghanistan."
"Karen said that someone from the 'Ragstand' had interviewed her. Daria set it up since she works there, but the lieutenant…wow."
Paula allowed herself a small smirk. "An amusing nickname for the paper. This reporter is resourceful and I bet is trying to also sell the story to a commercial paper. Local hero type of thing." After taking a stapled stack of paper from the folder, she said, "I have a copy of the after-action report here. Interesting choice you made there, corporal. You put yourself at great risk."
"Seemed like the right thing to do."
"And it was the right thing. The child is recovering well."
"Thank God," he said.
"Your actions impressed the local leadership and they're cooperating with us now. There's an old saying from Vietnam, 'winning hearts and minds.' That's just what you did."
"I was really just thinking about the girl and her mother."
"It still works. Cpl. Adler, this reporter has requested an interview with you."
"Karen said he wanted to talk to me."
"We think it will make a good story, if you're up to it."
"Yes I am, ma'am."
Paula opened her cell phone and said, "I'll put this on speaker."
She then checked a note in the folder and entered a number. After several rings, they heard, "Hello, this is Jeff Olson."
"Good morning, Mr. Olson. I'm at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and I’m calling concerning your request to interview Cpl. Derek Adler."
"Cpl. Adler has agreed to a short interview and is here on speakerphone."
Derek said, "Hello."
Jeff hurriedly said, "Great! Just a second, let me grab a notepad."
"I'm not going anywhere."
They could hear rustling over the phone and then Jeff said, "Okay, I’m ready. In your own words, can you please tell me how you rescued a mother and child while on patrol?"
"Paula?" Karen said, seeing the woman in Derek's room.
"Good to see you, Karen," she replied, standing to greet the newcomers. To Miriam, she extended her hand. "You must be Derek's mother. It's an honor to meet you. I'm Paula Trainor."
"Oh, hello, I'm Miriam. Paula…are you the friend of Amy's that lent us the parking pass?"
"Yes, I am."
"That was very decent of you, thank you."
Karen went past Paula to Derek to give him a kiss. "How are you doing today?"
"I'm getting there. Just finished an interview with that guy from the school paper."
"Which is part of why I'm here," Paula said. "Karen, Miriam, you can expect the story to hit the wire services and go all over. Most papers will just reprint the wire story as is, but some might contact you for additional information. You can reasonably expect some Boston area television coverage, though with you down here, you'll probably be spared on-screen interviews."
Karen frowned slightly. "Um, I need to run back to Boston for a couple days. Sorry, Derek, but I need to get all my stuff together before the vet school application deadline."
"Then go," he said. "It's too important."
"I'll be back as soon as I can."
With his left hand, Derek reached out and stroked Karen's cheek. "This is a good time to say something."
"I know Daria and Jane are getting stuff to you the best that they can, but I'm worried about you missing classes. I've missed a year of college already." He took a deep breath before continuing, "As much as I love having you here beside me, I'm asking you to go back to Boston and keep up with your studies."
"But you'll be here alone," Karen said, frustrated and hurt at his suggestion. "And I'm doing fine keeping up."
"We both know you can't do your labs long-distance, and you're eventually going to have tests. Karen, I wish you could stay here. I'm going to try to get transferred to the VA hospital in Boston as soon as I can. Gen. Trainor said she would see what she could do."
"No offense," Karen said, "but how much influence can an air force officer have on the army?"
Paula said, "Like I tell my cadets about Gen. LeMay, 'He may be the father of Strategic Air Command, but he earned his stars in the U.S. Army.' We all serve the same Commander in Chief and there are times to set aside interservice rivalry and do what's right. I can call in a few favors, but don't expect something too fast. When it comes to medical matters, a Major with an MD after his name sticking to his guns can trump the influence I'd bring. Oh, and before you get the idea that I'm all altruism and light; once Cpl. Adler is feeling better, I'm going to invite him to Tennyson a few times to give a talks on the infantry soldier's view of the battlefield. Something our future pilots need to know."
Derek said, "Invited presentations also look good on a CV."
"A young man who thinks ahead. Karen, I think you have a keeper with this one."
"He better be." Karen held Derek's hand and moved her face close to his. "Dammit, I just got you back and I don't like leaving. But, you've got a point." She looked up at Paula. "If you're going to help him get moved to Boston soon, then…okay."
In the morning, Karen and Amy waited in the foyer while Mr. Tarigama brought Karen's truck around to the front door. They watched Miriam with the twins and Amy said, "I think somebody's getting the grandparent itch."
"She has two sons and I've had the impression she always wanted a girl," Karen said. "But kids are going to have to wait for me to finish vet school and my internship. Hmm, do you think I can rent them from time to time to keep Miriam happy?"
Reese joined them and said, "My mother does a good enough job of spoiling them as it is. Tell you what, though. Next time we're in Boston, do you think you can get them a behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo?"
Karen nodded. "In all its stinky glory."
Mrs. Tarigama came down the stairs gently carrying a full-length garment bag. "As you requested."
"Thank you," Amy said, taking the bag and offering it to Karen. "It sounds like you're going to need one of these. Mine's only been worn once and it really needs to get out more."
Karen peeked in the bag and gasped.
Amy grinned and said, "Oh, and if you ask Daria to be your maid of honor, you know she has a matching dress."
Karen gulped for breath and said, "But…how…why?"
"Think of it as me passing on my good fortune."
"What about passing it on to one of your children?"
"I don't think the twins will want to share." Amy sighed. "And if their grandmothers have any say, their weddings are going to make mine look small."
Reese gently hugged his wife. "You had to mention that."
"Daria or Quinn?" Karen asked.
"Can you honestly see either of them wearing it?"
"No, not really."
"So it's yours."
Deeply touched, Karen said, "Thank you." She then looked at Amy's slender frame and then down at her own wider hips. "But…we're not exactly the same shape."
Amy placed her hand on Karen's arm. "That's what alterations are for."
When she arrived at work, Daria stopped at Jeff's desk. "Congratulations, your story made the wire services."
He nodded and said, "Thanks for the tip."
Daria straightened her back and took a moment to gather herself before saying, "I also need to apologize for doubting your professionalism."
When Daria started to leave, Jeff said, "This story taught me that you have a close circle of friends. Not too many people would pull together for someone like you and they have. I can see why you'd be defensive."
Daria gave him a polite nod and a faint smile before continuing on to her desk.
Frazzled and carrying her two suitcases in one hand and the garment bag in the other, Karen pushed back with one foot to close the front door of the apartment. "I've heard of the press camping out on your front lawn, but I never thought it was real."
Daria came over and took a suitcase from Karen. "Welcome home. If it makes you feel better, they ambushed both of us, too. At least they kept it short."
"Which I really needed after a long drive," Karen said. "Thanks."
Jane came out of her room and grabbed the other suitcase from Karen. "Good to see you. What's in the garment bag?"
Going into her room with them, Karen said, "Amy's wedding dress."
Jane stopped and dropped the suitcase on Karen's bed. "Whoa, really?"
"She hopes it passes on her good luck."
Daria said, "I knew there was a reason I liked Amy."
"Oh, Daria, she also reminded me that you have a perfectly matching gown. Do you think you can put it on again?"
Daria nodded. "For a friend like you, yes."
"Thanks. Now, can I unpack in a little privacy? Thanks."
"We'll be in the living room," Daria said as she and Jane left, closing the door behind them.
Karen turned on her small stereo. "I need some Dixie Chicks."
While Karen was unpacking, a TV camera crew was still on the lawn, putting their gear away. The reporter looked up and saw the small flag with a blue star in Karen's window. She tapped the camera operator and said, "Get a shot of that."
"Yes, boss," the camera operator tiredly said. He turned his camera back on and panned it up toward the window.
Karen set the empty suitcases aside and went to the window to do one more thing. Softly singing along with the CD, she very gently and reverently took the flag down and folded it.
"My soldier's coming home."
Lyrics from Traveling Soldier by Bruce Robison
Thanks to Louise Lobinske, Kristen Bealer, Ipswichfan and Mr. Orange for beta reading.