by Greg Mitchell -
“Somebody help! We need help over here!”
Trebs was growing pale, his lips turning purple, his skin sallow and thin. Dressler struggled under the other man’s weight, barely able to breathe after their long journey. After the beetle attacked out on the field, Dressler had done his best to make a tourniquet for Trebs’ pierced thigh, but without medical attention his co-hunter was going to die.
“We need a doctor!” Dressler shouted once more.
“No, Daddy…” Trebs mumbled through cracked lips. “It’s too dark, Dad…too dark…”
By time they reached the infirmary tent back at camp, another sand storm had picked up. Waves of hard grit felt like needles on Dressler’s face. He had his goggles on, his kerchief over his face, but the heat was blistering. Trebs slipped in and out of hysteria, sometimes whimpering like a child, other times shouting at the air, cursing his father.
Medics hurried out of the tent, fighting against the high winds to reach Trebs.
“He got hit by a bug,” Dressler shouted over nature’s roar. “He’s lost a lot of blood. He’s delirious.”
Two strong medics, decked in thick coats, caps, and goggles, hefted Trebs between them and dragged him toward the tent. Dressler followed, feeling like he’d just lost a hundred and seventy pounds. His arms tingled as he moved them again, and he looked down to see he was covered in Trebs’ blood.
Dressler pushed his way through the tent, instantly relieved of Eclectia’s cruelty. His hearing returned, his breathing slowed, and he removed his goggles and facemask. Surgeons apprised themselves of Trebs’ condition, cutting away his pants and stripping them off of him with a wet slap. Dressler glimpsed the wound, pumping blood like a volcano. Doctors hurried to stop the bleeding, beginning their operation.
“You’re going to have to leave,” one of the doctors ordered Dressler. He obliged, feeling unwanted, and retreated back into the storm.
Against the harsh winds, he crossed the camp to another, larger tent. Entering, he saw other dirtied bug hunters eating, drinking, laughing. Dressler dragged himself through the slop line, craving a little R&R at Maddie’s Pub back in town, but the mess tent would have to do. Nobody said anything to him as he gathered his plate of goop and found a seat at a nearly vacant table. Nobody knew what he’d just been through, the attack, that Trebs was fighting for his life.
He and Trebs weren’t friends, not in the traditional sense. He knew almost everything about the man, but that came from years together chasing beetles for meat. Alone out in the sands, there was little to do but talk. Get to know one another.
Except, Dressler hadn’t told Trebs about Edilyn. He’d not told many, except his sister. Dressler’s daughter Edilyn was diagnosed three weeks ago with ash lung. Only three Foundings old and the “experts” had given her two to six months to live. Edilyn was holding up, putting on a brave face for her dad, or perhaps she didn’t realize what she was facing. Only a child, she didn’t know the things she’d miss—school, growing up, making friends, falling in love, starting a family. Common human experiences that nearly everyone took for granted, but Edilyn would never have that chance. Dressler knew that even after she was gone, he’d celebrate every birthday, imagine every milestone that would have come. He’d continue to think about her life and what it could’ve—should’ve— been, long after she’d stopped living it.
It was his curse to bear.
One other hunter sat along the table from him. They were alone, the two of them. Jax was a strange one. He seemed different than the others. Quiet, withdrawn, like he was always thinking about something. The other hunters had given him a wide berth ever since his recent arrival, whispering about where he came from or who he was before he became a hunter. Most of Dressler’s ilk was born into this trade, learning to use a spear and rifle as soon as they could pull a pacifier out of their mouths. It was their culture—the mark of true manhood. Bug hunters took great pride in their work, telling stories of daring adventures against bug-kind. They were a loud, conceited sort, and Dressler might have joined with them not too long ago. He would have laughed and drank and shared wild tales, but Edilyn…
“Hey,” Jax spoke, breaking Dressler’s thoughts. Dressler regarded the other man, surprised. Jax’s face was pensive, his tone soft but distant. “You okay?”
Dressler remembered he was painted with blood—both human red and bug yellow. But he wasn’t the confiding type. “Yeah.”
Jax gave him a doubtful look then resumed his fabled deep thinking, continuing to eat. Dressler stared at the mound of nutritional slush on his plate, but had a hard time bringing himself to consume it. He thought of Trebs, of Edilyn, of his life on this ruined rock, and held his face in his hands.
“Excuse me,” a timid voice interrupted.
Dressler saw one of the camp nurses standing over him, her gown splattered with blood. It was then that Dressler realized how quiet the mess hall had grown all of a sudden, as everyone watched her and, by proxy, him. The nurse wrung her hands and Dressler prepared himself for the news that Trebs was dead. He’d have to tell the man’s family.
“Your friend wants to speak with you,” the nurse said, biting her lip. Her face was a mix of worry and fear.
Dressler stood. “He’s alive?”
She nodded. “We’ll talk more…in private.”
The nurse left him there, throwing conspiratorial glances over her shoulder. The men watched Dressler, mumbling gossip amongst themselves. Dressler felt out of place and looked to Jax for support, though he had no idea why. At last, he followed the nurse outside. She waited for him at the side of the tent, away from the hunters. The storm had subsided now, the breeze caressing the desert sands.
Dressler approached the woman, and she whispered, “He’s…he’s healed.”
“Okay,” Dressler said. “I’m glad the doctors were able to get to him in time.”
“No,” she corrected. “He’s healed. The wound is gone. It’s like he was never attacked.”
Dressler’s mind went blank. “I…I don’t understand. He lost so much blood.”
“He died on the operating table and then he just…woke up. The wound closed up on its own. There’s not even a scar. Not a scratch.”
“How is that possible?”
The nurse leveled her eyes at him. They were filled with a quiet terror. “It’s not. But…he wants to speak with you.”
At once, Dressler tromped across camp, headed for the infirmary. With force he pushed open the front flap, and gasped. Trebs was in a gown, sitting up on the bed, the medical staff pressed to one wall of the tent, talking heatedly, their voices low. Trebs turned to Dressler and smiled.
Doctors and nurses halted in their debate, eyeing the visitor. Dressler wanted to talk to them, to find out what had happened, but Trebs was focused on him, his face passive and full of light.
“Hey…Trebs,” Dressler greeted awkwardly, not knowing what to say. Hesitant, he walked closer to the hunter on the cot. “They, uh, they said you wanted to talk to me.”
“Not me,” Trebs chuckled softly. “Through me, but it’s someone else who has something to say. Come here.” He lifted his chin towards the professionals huddling in the corner. “It’s not for them.”
Dressler did as requested, a foreboding dread gnawing at his gut. As he drew near, Trebs leaned forward, excited. “I saw them, man.”
Dressler shook his head. “No.”
“Yes. I was dead. I was in the black…Then one of them came to me, glowing and warm. He, it, whatever, said that he would send me back. He’d heal me. He said I had good to do in my life. Hah, can you believe that? My old man,” Trebs trailed off, his eyes glistening with tears. “…he never thought I’d ever be any good…but I’ve got work to do, the angel said. And the first thing to do is talk to you.”
Dressler exhaled, realizing he’d been holding his breath. “Why me?”
Trebs looked to the floor. “Is, uh…is something wrong with Edilyn?”
Dressler felt as though a weight had slammed into his stomach, punching out his breath. “What?”
“The angel told me. He knows she’s sick, man. She’s dying. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It doesn’t matter. The angel wants to help. He said that he knows your kid believes and that ‘believers get rewarded’.”
Feeling faint, Dressler braced himself on the cot, trembling.
“You gotta go down there, though,” Trebs said. “I’m just the messenger. He said he can help you, but you’ve got to go down there. Under the water.”
Dressler wanted to protest. Why? How? The angel had healed Trebs—brought him back from the dead—from all these kilometers away. Why did Dressler have to brave the waters in order for Edilyn to be saved? It wasn’t fair. “Why can’t he heal her like he did you?”
Trebs shrugged. “I don’t know, Dress. I should’ve asked, but I was so grateful. You don’t know what it’s like when you’re around those guys. I felt it, man. It was like…joy. Pure joy. But you’ve gotta go to him.”
Dressler considered for a long moment, his mind filled with doubt, confusion, but most of all, hope. He spotted the doctors waiting on him, to hear his decision, and he would not keep them waiting any longer.
“Yeah. Okay. Where do I start?”