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Lost Things -- "A Girl Driving the Bus"

The galleys for Lost Things are done and turned in, so I thought I'd share a little bit from the book. Alma was an ambulance driver in World War I, and this is a flashback section of hers I particularly like.

She hadn't liked Gil the day she'd met him. He'd seemed arrogant, dismissive, if not outright offended that the new ambulance driver assigned to the corps was a woman. "Well, what are we coming to," he'd said in a slow Midwestern drawl, like her mere presence was going to bring on the apocalypse. "We've got a girl driving the bus."

Reacting would have proved his point. Too emotional, too irresponsible to be given the awesome responsibility of saving men's lives. And so she had been cool. No, cold. Professional. She'd spoken to Lt. Colonel Gilchrist as little as possible and only in the line of duty. Until the day he'd been sprayed with shrapnel from an explosive shell.

Ambulance drivers didn't just drive the bus. Usually they were the first medical attention a wounded man received, and sometimes the only treatment. Especially if the wounds weren't life threatening, and the man was stubborn. She'd spent two hours with a lamp set up, picking splinters of metal out of his back with tweezers. Most of them were tiny, little razor sharp needles that had been smoking hot when they'd cut through jacket and shirt and undershirt to lodge in his skin. Tiny, yes. And none of them dangerous in themselves. But infection killed more men than wounds, and they'd come through a filthy jacket on their way in. Every single one of them could be dangerous if they suppurated.

It must have hurt, her pulling each one out with tweezers, nipping at lacerated flesh with metal pincers, then dabbing it with raw alcohol, but he sat still like she told him to, occasionally swearing a blue streak and then asking her pardon.

"I've heard it all before, Colonel," she said. And of course she had. By that time she'd been there four months and there wasn't a lot she hadn't seen or heard.

After that he treated her differently, with a cautious kind of respect, even if he no longer looked her up and down like a doll. She supposed that she'd earned his regard in some sense. In muddy, shapeless clothes it was hard to tell she was even female unless she spoke. She blended in, just Al. Pretty soon everyone had stopped apologizing for swearing in front of her. She'd stopped being female in any meaningful social sense, which suited her fine. Days and nights blurred together in a haze of exhaustion. There was only the corps.

Until the day Mitch was hit. He brought his plane in, wing dragging, and she could tell from the edge of the flight line that it was both plane and man to blame, and was running out on to the field with her kit before the props stopped rotating, Gil one step behind her. She jumped up on the wing and leaned over Mitch, his hands on the controls and his eyes pressed shut, his lap full of blood.

"Ok," Mitch said calmly. "I'm going to die now."

"Don't be ridiculous," Al snapped. "Gil, help me get him out of here. Get his shoulders." She could already see. If it had been an artery he would have passed out long ago. It wasn’t going to kill him. Just cost him his life.

Gil rode with him in the ambulance, hunched in the back holding his hand, while she'd jolted over roads rutted by artillery caissons, rutted through mud and fill all the way down to the Roman stones beneath. Afterwards, when he was delivered to proper surgeons, she'd stood a moment by the ambulance, thinking about Mitch's jokes and his thick Southern accent, his cool head and his offhand gallantry, the way he made the absurdly difficult seem effortless in the air. She'd begun to think of him as a friend, and even though he lived she wondered what the day had killed in him.

Gil came up behind her, leaned on the ambulance and lit a cigarette. They wouldn't let you smoke in the hospital, not with the oxygen tanks around. He inhaled and blew out a long stream. "Crap," he said quietly.

Al didn't trust her voice to say anything.

In a moment he put his hand on her back. He didn't say it was ok, because it wasn't. He didn't say that he knew she'd done all she could, because she had. He just stood there, his hand on the back of her shoulder, and after a moment she leaned against it.