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Excerpt of Chapter One
I pushed away the books in front of me in frustration. I grasped the basic concept of how to mix the chemotherapy drugs and believed that the state-of-the-art lab in the armory included everything I’d need to do so, even a nice biosafety cabinet, but I couldn’t be sure I would mix the right drugs for Joel. As a Physician’s Assistant working in family medicine, and an ICU nurse before that, I’d never been tasked with oncology before, so I had no idea which drugs to prescribe Joel.
Cytology clearly indicated cancerous cells in the pleural fluid, which meant he had some kind of cancer, but he’d declined a biopsy, and I wasn’t confident it would’ve helped me identify which kind of chemotherapy to give him anyway, even if I had narrowed down the type of tumor. That was outside my wheelhouse, and none of the books available in the armory were enlightening me.
Picking up one of the books again, I went to the drug storage room, to the chemotherapy section, to look at the drugs. Even seeing the names on the vials, ampules, and bottles of powder didn’t help me decide which would be the best to use. With a sigh, I returned to the workspace I’d been using on one of the black-topped lab tables, taking a moment to straighten the books and put them back on the bookshelf. I knew I was wasting time in an effort to prolong speaking with Joel, which wasn’t fair to him.
I left the elegantly equipped lab, unable to believe I was no closer to finding a solution than I’d been before entering. I’d always known it was a longshot, but I’d hoped there would be some resource in the medical books available to me, or perhaps some clues in the package inserts of the medications themselves. I’d turned up nothing, so it was my grim duty to tell Joel that.
I stopped by the cafeteria to look for him first, but he wasn’t there. Other than a cough that occasionally brought up blood, and some weight loss, he wasn’t yet displaying advanced symptoms. I’d only taken a needle aspiration sample for cytology when his cough lingered and didn’t improve. He wasn’t working that day though, so I wandered around the armory a bit before leaving the underground part of the base to go to the main level. I wanted to check in with Joshua, who represented Joel’s best hope at the moment, and I was surprised to see Joel helping him in the greenhouse.
I moved closer, not bothering with an encouraging smile. I did give him a small one, but Joel didn’t reciprocate. Joshua stood nearby, doing something with his marijuana plants. I had no idea, since botany had never been my strong point, so I focused my attention on Joel. “I still don’t know what kind of chemo to use, Joel. I spent the morning trying to figure it out, but it would just be a blind guess on my part.”
He looked resigned, but that was often his expression these days. “It doesn’t matter, Grace.” His defeatist attitude was also common with him and had been since the militia mowed down Betsy at the camp. Losing his wife had incapacitated him emotionally, if not fully physically.
I could sympathize, but hated that he didn’t seem inclined to fight. With a sigh, I turned my attention to Joshua. “How’s your crop coming?”
“Very well. I found seeds for a strain that yields a higher level of CBD and less THC, so it will minimize his side effects when he takes it. These are almost ready to harvest, and then I can extract the CBD and THC oil for Joel.”
I nodded, no longer skeptical about Joshua’s claims. He came to me shortly after Joel’s diagnosis to tell me that extracts from marijuana could sometimes kill cancer cells, or at least slow their growth dramatically. Researching through the materials that were available to me had confirmed he was right. Joel didn’t seem to care whether we tried or didn’t try anything, so Joshua and I were working together, though it sometimes felt like in spite of Joel rather than with him.
There was nothing else to do there, so I left the greenhouse, walking slightly out of my way to visit the pasture, where the livestock were settled in for winter. There was a nice barn behind it, and I couldn’t see any of the livestock in the pasture. Deciding I didn’t care about playing it cool, I moved to the barn and entered.
A quick glance revealed most of the animals in various stalls, or grouped into small clumps settled into the hay. There were a few people working, but I immediately recognized Clint’s black cowboy hat. That put a spring in my step, and my stomach tightened with excitement, just like it did every time I saw him.
It was the strangest reaction, mostly reminiscent of adolescent crushes I’d had. I had the butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling for my husband, Luke, in the beginning, but those had already faded and died before HLV took him. He’d died two weeks before our divorce hearing, and he was still cursing me the last time I saw him. The funny thing was, I should’ve been the one cursing him, since he’d been the cheater in the relationship, but he blamed me for bailing.
With Clint, I felt none of the anxiety and uncertainty that marred my last months with Luke. I moved closer to him. He looked up with a grin, leaning against the pitchfork he’d been using, and nodded down to the ground. “Watch your step, darlin’.”
I paused and looked down, realizing I had almost stepped in a fresh cow patty. Or it could have come from a horse or goat. I didn’t know enough about the animals to distinguish which one had left the pile in the hay, but was thankful for his sharp eyes. I made an adept detour around it to cross the last few feet to him.
It felt natural to just hold out my arms, and his wrapped around me. We hugged for a moment before he kissed me on the cheek. I thought we were farther along in our relationship than a kiss on the cheek, but he was also old-fashioned in some ways, and he wasn’t fond of PDAs. There were enough people in the barn to inhibit him. I found it sweet and mimicked the motion by pressing a kiss to his cheek.
I stepped back to allow him his dignity, but he surprised me by wrapping his arm around my waist and pulling me closer. Then he kissed me full on the mouth, and it was just as nice as it had been the first time he did it a few weeks ago. Nice was too tepid of a word. It curled my toes and made my stomach clench with excitement. I wondered if that would ever fade and hoped it would not.
When he pulled away, he kept his arm around my waist. “What brings you to my neck of the woods? Are you ready to learn how to milk a cow?”
I shuddered. “No, I’ll leave that to you and Finn.”
Clint laughed. “Finn gets up too late to milk the cows, darlin’. Usually, Mason helps out, but he wasn’t feeling well this mornin’.”
“That’s too bad. Do you need help milking the cows?” I asked the question cautiously, certainly not eager to volunteer, but not wanting the cows to be uncomfortable, or Clint to be overworked.
He shook his head, which sent a wave of relief through me.
“Nah, Lori stepped in.” He nodded his head to the left side, and I saw Lori sitting on a stool in front of a cow, its teats in her hands. She nodded in my direction and smiled, but never broke rhythm. I lowered my voice slightly and turned with my back to her as I asked Clint, “Shouldn’t she be in class with Sofia?” Sofia was our schoolteacher, though she was only a few years older than Lori and had only been in training when HLV wrecked everything.
“Sofia tested her last week, and she passed the High School Equivalency Test with flying colors. Now, she’s just looking for her place at the armory. She’s been visiting the animals, so I asked her to pitch in. She’s a natural at milking.”
“Thank goodness for that, so I don’t have to.”
“Should I come by your place tonight before dinner to walk you to the cafeteria?”
I hesitated for a second, but only because I wanted to see the flush slowly filling his cheeks. He seemed shy about the question, and I could imagine why. Last time he’d met me before dinner to walk me to the cafeteria, we’d gotten into a heavy make-out session. It would’ve progressed to more, but he put on the brakes. He didn’t want to rush me, he said, but I figured part of his caution was because he knew he’d be expected to share me at some point.
It wasn’t exactly a rule at the armory, but with the men outnumbering the women significantly, and with three women already involved in relationships with multiple men, the writing was on the wall. I didn’t have the sense that anybody would force me to have more than one boyfriend, or even force me to have one boyfriend, but it was becoming part of our society, and the idea intrigued me. I had yet to meet anybody else at the armory who’d caught my attention, other than Clint, but hadn’t ruled out the possibility of more than one man. I nodded and said, “I’ll see you tonight then.”
After parting from him and leaving the barn, I returned to the infirmary to give Finn the news about the chemotherapy. He was just coming out of one of the exam rooms when I saw him, and he walked over to me as I met him halfway.
“Did you have any luck figuring out which drug to use for Joel?”
I let out a heavy sigh. “No, and I don’t think I’m going to be able to with the resources here at the armory.”
Finn frowned. “We can always try the university. They had a medical school attached, and I—”
“No, and you know why. Collier’s put us on lockdown for the winter in an attempt to avoid the New Order Militia.”
“He’d give us permission. Hell, I’ll go, if you want? I can bring back all the books I find.”
I shook my head again. “I’d have to go to see what might actually be useful. I’m willing to, but Joel has already said he doesn’t want anybody risking their lives for him, and we have to respect that. To be honest, I don’t think he wants the chemo anyway.”
Finn looked sad. “Yeah, I guess he’s afraid it won’t work, and there’re all those side effects…”
I shrugged. “Maybe he’s afraid it will work. He’s not the same Joel he used to be before they killed Betsy.”
Finn went quiet for a moment and then sighed. “I can relate. If something happened to Natalie…” He trailed off and shook his head. “Anyway, we have a couple new patients.”
“Is Mason one of them?” He seemed surprised when I guessed the identity, and I told him Clint had mentioned he wasn’t feeling well.
“Yeah, and Zach.”
I didn’t know Zach well, but I recognized him in passing, the same as Mason. I’d treated various people since coming to the armory, but hadn’t had a lot of time to get friendly with many of them. Mostly, my social circle consisted of the same people it had when I was still at Camp Utopia, along with the addition of Finn, Natalie and her other boyfriends, and Clint. “What are the symptoms?”
“High fever, sweating, and chills. I’m guessing it’s influenza.”
“Let’s take a look.” We went into Zach’s room first, where I performed an examination. It was definitely something viral. “I think you might be right about influenza. Your late-night study sessions are paying off.”
Poor Finn was burning the candle at both ends some days as he tried to learn all he could about human anatomy to compensate for the fact that he had been a veterinarian-in-training before coming to the armory and taking over healthcare there. He’d wanted to retire when I arrived at the armory from Camp Utopia and go back to caring for animals, but didn’t get that luxury. The more I could teach him, and the more we could both learn, the safer everyone would be.
After leaving Zach’s room, I followed Finn to the other exam room and immediately thought Mason was in worse shape. He was sweating profusely and trembling. His fever was one-oh-five when I checked it with the temporal thermometer a moment later. “Let’s get him on an IV.” I could add something to bring down the fever along with the hydration solution that way.
I stood back and watched, overseeing the procedure. Finn did it with flawless technique, and I knew he must’ve worked with the practice arm Avi had found somewhere and brought back for him from a run after I asked him to keep an eye out for one.
“What kind of ‘flu do you think it is?”
I shrugged. “It could be A or B, or something horrible, like H5N1, though that strain isn’t too likely. Without a full lab panel—that won’t tell us much about how to treat it anyway—it’s just a best guess. Since most viral infections have a similar protocol, we’ll just have to wait and see.”
“We need someone here with them the whole time, huh?”
I nodded at Finn’s words. “I’ll take the first watch.” I volunteered because I wanted to have my evening free for Clint. Finn departed a moment later, looking tired. I left the doors open for both exam rooms and went to the reception desk, picking up the novel I’d left there. I couldn’t really concentrate with all the thoughts racing through my head, but somehow, the hours managed to pass.