Life Is for the Living

by Christina De La Rocha

Socorro scrolled through today’s top videos. Anything worth watching? No… no… yes! Up just an hour and already viewed 250,642 times. She clicked and Leandro filled the screen, hair streaming like night as he charged up a hill dotted with the dead, the dying, and the merely severely wounded.

Ay! Ay! Ay! What an ambush it must have been. Socorro bit a fingernail. How would Leandro handle this? What would Leandro do?

Socorro’s chin sank down dreamily into her hands. Leandro, of course, stayed as calm and cool as a cucumber in a quiet sea. Unbothered by the smoke, the screams, and the rat-a-tat-tatting of guns, he paused to close the eyes of the young fighter who’d died right in front of him.

A shell burst just off to the right, sending Socorro all but leaping from her seat. Then she squinted in at the screen and frowned. Run, Leandro, run! Nanoparticles were raining down all around him and they’d be taken up by his mitochondria and start fluorescing, turning him into a great big beaming sign that said AIM HERE.

But Leandro closed his own eyes, praying over the fallen boy, all the while growing glowing. Socorro caught her breath. He was so beautiful. But, still… Go, Leandro. Please go!

Socorro screamed as a bloody hand grasped Leandro’s shin.

But it was just another wounded fledgling.

“You live,” Leandro noted, now as radiant as any saint. As Leandro gathered the boy into his arms, the boy looked up at Leandro with humble gratitude, searing Socorro’s heart. Then, winking into the camera, Leandro rose and turned and began to lope back to the evacuation point, dodging explosions all the way, strewing a Tinkerbell stream of luminescence in his wake.

By the time that Leandro, his totally ripped back, and the bounding, glowing soles of his feet had vanished into the distance, accordion had kicked in, accompanied by a vicious oom pah pah beat. In standard Leandro style, the video was fading out to the hopped-up jangles of the latest of Leandro’s corridos.

Socorro sighed. What a hero! ♥♥ she wrote in the comments. Meanwhile, the music played on. Socorro’s mouth wriggled like a camel’s, perplexed. The video was not over. Why was the video not over? Socorro scrolled back up just in time to see Leandro come back on.

“Why are you still sitting there?” he said with gleaming teeth. “We need you. I need you. Get over here and volunteer.”

* * * * *

Which was how, about a week later, Socorro came to scratch the back of a dusty leg with an even dustier huarache that was now walked to tatters to boot. Taking a deep breath, she emerged from the shadows of the mango trees that lined the plaza at the heart of the small, mountain town and strode toward the hospital, stopping just in front of its glass doors. After a long, haughty pause, they stooped to open, flushing Socorro with a gush of lifeless air.

Socorro shivered.

The doors waited.

Behind Socorro, birds were singing through the perfumed day. Socorro scratched the back of her leg again, enjoying the warmth of sun on her skin. But then she straightened her shoulders, adjusted her satchel, and walked in, beelined for the counter, and asked for a job.

The receptionist who looked up did so like you’re what the cat dragged in, not to mention awfully young. But Socorro held her ground, waving her certification, all but still hot off the press, until the receptionist shrugged and said, “Welcome to the Hospital of the Perpetual Shortage of Nurses,” and pushed a pen and a form on a clipboard across the counter.

Twenty minutes later, Socorro had been given scrubs, two pairs of fatigues, and a cot in a room with six other women and had been told to report for her first shift at five.

* * * * *

“Each nurse rotates through a series of shifts,” said Julia. “Most of your shifts will be on the Intensive Care or the Recovery wards, but Triage will figure in significantly, too.”

Socorro nodded absently, visions of Leandro’s videos dancing through her head.

“Be aware ‒ most shifts in Triage overrun.” As Julia spoke, a fountain of small J’s shimmied from her earlobes, mesmerizingly emphasizing each point. “As casualties come in, it’s easy to get sucked in to Surgery to hand over scalpels, mop brows, and sponge blood for hours on end.”

Socorro tilted her head and grinned. No rest for the wicked.

“But Triage isn’t the shift you’ll despise,” Julia told her. “That shift will be Retrieval.”

Socorro stared.

“You don’t believe me?” Julia laughed. “You’ll see. It’s scary, sweaty, dirty, messy, and demoralizing.”

Socorro’s stare hardened.

Julia dropped her voice and drew Socorro in close. “I hate Retrieval with all my heart.”

Socorro’s look shouted No!

“Being out there in the middle of a skirmish trying to evacuate survivors or mop up after an ambush gone wrong, it scares me out of my skin.”

Socorro blinked at Julia. Leandro never feared.

But Julia was adamant. “No one enjoys going out into the violence to find, field dress, and evacuate the injured.”

But Retrieval was Leandro’s favorite shift. Indeed, he forsook all others. Bedpans, catheters, trays stacked with paper cups filled with pills; Leandro left all that to the notably less heroic. What a man.

“I won’t be afraid,” proclaimed Socorro. Indeed, she was looking forward to Retrieval. For out there was where she would find him. ♥♥

Julia looked at her pityingly.

* * * * *

Socorro was on her fourth stint in Intensive Care and hadn’t yet rotated through Retrieval when it happened. The doors burst open, light blossomed, and there he was, rushing in with a foot soldier flapping in his arms.

Leandro!

Socorro, heart bursting with this chance, was right there with a gurney, way ahead of the orderlies. Slowpokes.

Leandro didn’t pause. All trumpets and fanfare, he lay the fighter right down. The scrawny thing gurgled, big crimson bubbles blowing up through the treacle that covered his throat.

Decapitation fail?

Socorro stopped, shocked at the gore and the hot, horrible stench.

Her heart simply aching for what he was going through, Socorro reached out and touched Leandro’s hand.

Their eyes met.

Leandro!

Leandro blinked back at Socorro, confused, like a hamster caught pilfering, its cheeks stuffed with food.

“CUT!” screeched a voice. “WHAT IS THIS????”

From behind the banks of cameras and lights, a woman emerged.

“WHO IS THIS???”

The Fury flicked away the clipboard she’d been holding and a hundred people winced as it clattered along the ground.

The orderlies, who’d careened to a halt, shuffled from foot to foot, their stethoscopes swinging like trunks. Their gazes shifted anxiously from the volcanic woman to the expiring soldier.

“This won’t do!” barked the woman. “Get her out of the way and roll it again from the top.”

Hands pulled Socorro aside and pushed her toward a back corner of the room.

With a burning face, Socorro picked up the chart of the patient swaddled there.

Leandro carried the no longer quite so gurgly young fighter back out through the doors and then, on cue, came bursting back in.

Slowly, the words on the chart came into focus. Male, 14. Quadruple amputation, traumatic brain injury, third degree burns.

The orderlies rushed over once again to assist.

Socorro lowered the chart and looked down at the scorched, limbless vegetable. So sad. So young. Socorro put her hand on what passed for the kid’s shoulder and felt her heart break.

Leandro set the soldier, floppier than before, down again on the gurney. Everyone stared at the bubbling slowing down.

Everyone, that is, except Socorro. Staring down at the broken brain trapped in the abbreviated body, she was shaking with the young fighter’s pain.

“Wheel him straight in to surgery!” cried Leandro.

But then Socorro’s eyes fixed on the doctor’s key, still lodged in its slot.

One orderly shot icicles at Leandro. They were just going to wheel the guy straight out to the morgue once they were out of sight of the cameras. But Leandro paid no heed. “Toot sweet!” he cried.

Still trembling, Socorro turned the key and dialed the morphine to maximum and continuous flow. Then she put a comforting hand upon the young fighter, joining him for the ebb of the anguish into the bliss of obliviousness. Then Socorro let go with a sigh. This lifeless life would soon be over, its breathing peacefully ceasing.

Socorro pocketed a single small gold coin from the pile of belongings on the bedside stand.

When Socorro looked up, the show was over. The gurney, the dead rescued soldier, and the orderlies were already gone and Leandro and the woman, the lights, and the cameras were filtering their way back out of Intensive Care.

* * * * *

“I encountered the most furious woman this morning,” Socorro said to Julia. Best roomie ever.

“Cecilia,” Julia cackled, twirling dangling Js about one of her fingers. “I heard.”

“Oh no,” Socorro frowned. “Really?”

“It’s today’s talk of the town.” The profusion of Js danced as Julia laughed.

Socorro rubbed her forehead. Major bummer. Am I a pariah?

“Don’t worry,” said Julia. “No one here has really arrived until Cecilia has had a go at them.”

“Who is she?” asked Socorro. “I mean, what is she?” Better question.

Julia cackled again. “You got too close to Leandro.”

Socorro blushed.

Julia peered into Socorro’s eyes. “She’s screwing him, you know.”

Socorro squirmed.

“But she shouldn’t be, so they pretend that she isn’t.”

La, la, la; I can’t hear you!

“In case you hadn’t grasped it,” said Julia, her Js now really rollicking, “Cecilia directs the PR/recruitment videos starring Leandro. And while she’s not bad at it, there’s literally a million other people who want the job. It’s only hers because some big wig in the organization has a soft spot for her.”

Socorro nodded, so heartsick.

“Oh, honey,” said Julia. “You’ll get over it. Half the girls and no small number of the boys here arrived punch drunk with love for Leandro and they all got bitten by Cecilia. But they got over it and moved on to better and most certainly bigger things.” Julia said this last bit with somewhat of a leer.

* * * * *

Socorro hugged herself around the satchel stuffed with bandages, syringes, splints, antiseptic, and a multiple cow-killing amount of morphine. Her eyeballs ached, clamped as they were under those dinner plates known as night vision contacts. From behind his video goggles, the octocopter operator, making ready to hunch himself over his console, waved them an adiós muchachos. Then, with the queasy lift, dip, and lurch of an amusement park ride, the octocopter was off.

“Please let them not jam the signal,” someone moaned.

Socorro exhaled a tightly pinched stream of terror and clutched at the bars holding her torso in place.

This was it.

It was just about midnight, she was strapped into a dangling seat, and they were swooping into the battle zone. Socorro’s first Retrieval.

She exhaled again.

Leandro… Leandro… Leandro…

The danglers completing the circle were the rest of the Retrieval Team. With fingers folded and pressed to forehead or heart, each member was murmuring, praying to Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Mercy, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, or Santa Muerte. Scattered by the rushing wind of their travel, the invocations battered against Socorro like butterflies and soap bubbles.

Leandro… Leandro… Leandro…

And then, boom! They were out, on the ground, and running, radiating away from the drop off point as fast as their little shoes could scurry. A 250-strong contingent had been ambushed in a bottleneck on their way to raid a suspected enemy outpost, the slaughter was ongoing, and losses were severe and mounting. The wounded needed immediate first aid and evacuation.

Socorro had scampered hard and fast, but was still close enough to the drop off point to feel the three big shells that exploded, successively sonicating the area with flesh-melting, brain-curdling, high-frequency pulses of sound. As she picked herself up and shook the sickening sensation out of her spine, she stared in dumb disbelief at a long lock of her hair as it let go and fell to the ground. Then, slowly, Socorro looked back over her shoulder at the drop off point, wondering about everyone else.

The she shook her head clear and ran.

The first fighter Socorro found, she found because he was shrieking, squeaky wheel gets the oil and all that. Half of him had caught enough of a sonication for the cells of his skin and some of the underlying muscle to have burst. Now those cells, having spilled their guts, were betraying him in a death spiral of self-propagating, self-destructive, chemical cues.

With each howl from the solider, Socorro could increasingly feel the cascades, the bursting of cells spreading like dominoes deeper and wider and then deeper still through the soldier’s tissues and it hurt exactly as if this is happening inside of her. A buzzing heat filled her ears. She had to make it stop. She had to stop the liquefaction. She had to stop this suffering. And she had to do it now.

Quaking, Socorro shoved an inhaler into the soldier’s mouth and squeezed. It blurped out vapor that would work its way into the man’s bloodstream and be delivered to his tissues to slowly slow down the death chemical cascade. But it would not reverse any damage already done.

The soldier stared one eye wide at Socorro as, sniffing tears back up into her nose, she stepped slightly back to assess him. Her face puckered into its unimpressed camel expression. At least half of the soldier would have to be trimmed off to avoid putrefaction. Which was to say, the best you could say of his future was that it would be diapered and attached to machines.

“Please,” pleaded the soldier, “save me.”

Socorro’s heart dropped like ice into her intestines then she flooded with rage.

Save him?! She wanted to kick him. Life was so precious and you only got one and he’d screwed his up. He’d veered right instead of left, or walked instead of run and now his wife, mother, and children had not just lost their main bread winner, they’d gained a big maggot they’d have to house, feed, and clean.

Closing his only eye, the soldier resumed shrieking, even slowed liquefaction being no picnic in the park with a mariachi band. Socorro wanted to shriek, too, until she ripped in two and came out into a place of light and tranquility, where everything was okay and no one she was helpless to fix was screeching in pain that she could feel like fire and needles.

Socorro crushed her hands over her ears and gazed dizzily out over the battlefield, looking for something to ground her. For some sign that would give her hope or some sight that would soothe her. But all she could see, in night-vision green, was a crawling catalog of carnage and misery.

Where was Leandro? If only she could have but a glimpse of him, then, somehow, it would all be alright.

The soldier howled louder still. As Socorro stared back down at him, a mass from his abdomen collapsed like an iceberg calving into the sea, piling pulp up in a puddle on the ground around him.

Socorro grasped at her own side, trying to convince herself that it was still there.

Get it in gear, girl.

Get. It. In. Gear.

Socorro reached into her satchel and rummaged, her hand emerging with a needle that she peeled out of its packet and locked onto a syringe. Plunging the needle through the membrane on a morphine vial, Socorro sucked up a massive dose.

Tears streaming anew, she brought the needle toward the soldier’s skin.

The soldier, no fool, jerked and flopped like a fish trying for the river. But Socorro, kissing her lips into a determined duck face, grabbed his one intact arm, stuck in the needle, and plunged.

By the count of three, the maimed soldier was out, sending relief soaring through Socorro’s veins.

She took a deep breath and stood up.

Fly free, brave fighter, fly free.

Then she left him dreaming his last dream, lightened of the load of the thin gold ring that was slipping off his progressively necrotizing finger.

And that was just the beginning of her shift.

* * * * *

“And then…” Socorro was telling Julia as they stood in the hallway. 

J’s jumping, Julia blinked, encouraging Socorro to continue.

But Socorro’s mouth had sealed shut and her eyes were on red alert.

Leandro was slouching down the hallway, accompanied by a Cecilia brightly chattering, the gold chains of her wealth slinking down into her blouse.

Socorro hadn’t seen Leandro in so long. At least a week! Not even from a distance.

Not that he ever noticed her. Sheer torture.

Cecilia tossed her hair and smiled so very brilliantly at the two little nurses, letting her bosom bounce as she flounced along.

Julia snorted.

Leandro wiggled his eyebrows.

Socorro blushed.

Cecilia’s smile didn’t falter, although her flounce skipped half a beat and her eyes narrowed to a burn.

Then the pair disappeared around a corner and were gone.

Socorro sighed, just a lowly worm, biding her time.

Julia burst out laughing.

Struck by a thought, Socorro turned to her.

“It’s so weird. I’ve never seen him out there on Retrieval. Not once in all these months.”

“Yet Retrieval is all he does,” said Julia, her eyes breaking into an overly benevolent beam.

“It must be some perfect curse of scheduling.” Just her luck.

“Of course.” Julia’s eyes held their patient, schoolteacher smile.

“It’s a shame,” Socorro plowed on. “To be out there with him, it would be so inspiring.”

Julia folded her arms across her chest.

Socorro folded her arms right back.

Eventually Julia said, “Well, there’s always new videos.”

Socorro smiled and did a little dance. She was still Leandro’s #1 fan.

Julia slapped Socorro between the shoulder blades. “You really need to get over him. Move on to better things.”

Socorro gave her a look. Stupid cow.

* * * * *

One day, on their way back from the cafeteria, there was a stack of packages at the front desk. Fan mail for Leandro.

“We could take that over,” said Socorro. “It would be no trouble at all.”

Julia, well, how would she have put it if she were Socorro? Facepalm.

“You so owe me,” hissed Julia a few minutes later, as she led the way to Leandro’s room. Socorro trotted behind her, a pile of white boxes streaming red ribbons teetering in her arms.

Media HQ. The belly of this beast was a whole new world for Socorro and it was huge. Socorro followed Julia past room after room after room. Casting, makeup, wardrobe, directing, sound, special effects, editing, music, and even writing.

Leandro, apparently, wasn’t the only star in this stable. There seemed to be a submariner, a bush pilot, a dolphin trainer, three dogs, a supply sergeant, and an entire Elite Special Force Team who starred in the videos produced here.

Well, the war had many fronts, Socorro supposed.

Then they were in front of a room. Leandro’s room! Things were getting interesting.

Socorro took it all in as she entered. Leandro’s neatly made bed sat on a dais in the center of the room. Along the back wall, a tall, mirrored wardrobe stood beside a sideboard boasting a crystal army of glasses and decanters. Black velvet, black light paintings of lowriders and a heart bursting its chains hung on one wall. There was even a bathroom, including a shower and a huge sunken tub. Not exactly typical medic’s quarters, but, Socorro supposed, fitting for a hero and a star.

While Julia tapped the toe of her comfortable clogs on the tiles of the floor, Socorro arranged the letters and presents into a pleasant mountain on the bed. Then she took a moment to admire her handiwork and to bask in the being there in Leandro’s room before Julia rolled her eyes for the umpteenth time and shooed her out.

* * * * *

The door to the Green Screen Room was wide open as they walked back and something seemed to be going on inside.

“Curiosity killed the earthworm,” hissed Julia as Socorro craned her neck in for a look.

Leandro!

He was up on the stage, bandaging a lightly wounded fighter while the battle raged informatively on a little monitor off to the side. Explosions boomed from the speakers as Cecilia, keeping one eye on the monitor, directed the lights, camera, and action in the manner of an orchestra conductor.

Socorro stopped short. The scene was not just surreal but familiar, but she couldn’t quite place it. Were they reshooting an old sequence? One that she’d watched sometime before?

Then, cued by Cecilia, Leandro did something incredibly un-Leandro-like; he squatted and lifted the now bandaged fighter up over his shoulders in a fireman’s carry that was neither soaring nor heroic.

Socorro’s breath sucked sharply in and she went hot and ill all the way down to her knees. She hadn’t seen this before. She had lived this.

She steadied herself on the doorframe.

It had been about two weeks ago, during her most recent Retrieval, toward the end of a light skirmish, a victory for the home team. There had been roving cameras and, for once, plenty of salvageables. Most had been evacuated by stretcher or drone, but there had been one that Socorro, wanting to be just like Leandro, had carried in on her own.

Because what would Leandro do? Leandro would do this! And it had been amazing.

Saving a life. So intense.

Tugging pulled Socorro away from the door. Socorro’s head turned and she blinked slowly, uncomprehendingly at what eventually came into focus as Julia. 

“That was my life,” Socorro said, her voice a small bundle of burrs and confusion.

“Come on,” said Julia, putting her arm around Socorro’s waist and leading her away. “This isn’t our side of the building.”

* * * * *

It wasn’t Julia’s fault that it was all lies, but Julia had known.

Socorro doubled her shifts and tripled the time she spent working out and it had the intended effect. For the next ten days, the closest Socorro came to crossing Julia’s path was having a close encounter with some of Julia’s things.

Socorro had ducked into their room to grab her satchel before her next shift. The room was unoccupied, but Julia’s clothes lay on Julia’s cot, Julia’s clogs were on the floor, and Julia’s jumping J earrings sat on Julia’s nightstand. But Julia’s towel, toiletries, and shower sandals were gone.

Socorro, in her haste to leave before Julia returned, bumped the nightstand, knocking one earring to the floor. It skittered under Julia’s cot. Socorro stopped and stared at it, tilting her head.

It would easily be found.

After a moment, Socorro picked the fallen earring’s mate up off the nightstand, deposited it in her pocket, and left the room.

* * * * *

On Friday, an unexpected airplane arrived and swept Cecilia off to her patron’s for the weekend. Leandro, ever mindful of his need to glow from within, took this opportunity to turn in early and pamper himself with z’s. Thus midnight found Socorro creeping down a dimmed hallway, her heart simple singing. Hallelujah. Finally her chance with Leandro.

One step, then another. Did this corridor never end? Then, a sound. A doorknob turning. Leandro’s doorknob turning.

Socorro stepped back into the shadowed recess of a doorframe and held her breath.

Leandro… Leandro… Leandro… Please let him not leave. Please let her not lose this chance.

But the head that emerged to look carefully left and then carefully right down the hallway before slinking off in the other direction belonged to Julia.

Socorro held on to her scream. But the continent she had been standing on unmoored and the corridor around her began to spin.

When Socorro returned to her senses, she was in Leandro’s room. He was asleep, breathing softly in the glow of a grinning blue dolphin night light, bedclothes lying crumped at his lovely toes. His eyebrows were as chiseled as an eagle’s and his long hair fanned out like the wings of a raven. Socorro held her breath, drinking in the swoop of Leandro’s jaw, the power of his nose, and the gym-plumped hairlessness of his chest, knowing, as suddenly and surely as she had ever known anything, she would never again see anyone so beautiful, not up this close, not in real life.

Socorro closed her eyes, imagining wrapping herself around Leandro. But the emotion that exploded inside of her was rage.

She had admired Leandro and had walked a hundred miles in inadequate shoes because he had said he needed her. Then for months, even as he had ignored her, she had endured the terror, the pain, and the fear felt by the injured fighters who had come pouring into the wards. And every time she’d been scheduled to Retrieve, she had laid her life on the line to compliment Leandro’s rescue of the living with her release of the dead. The exact other side of his coin, she had more than held up her end of the deal.

But for what?

Just a lie.

The Leandro lying there, perfect and pristine, was a sham. A fake. An untested, mollycoddled hollow shell whose existence was a flat line of feats without daring, rescues that saved no one, and chances that took no risks.

Plus, he’d just slept with Julia.

Socorro’s rage broke into a powerful tower of righteousness, brighter than light. Life was for the living. It should not be wasted on the dead.

Socorro reached into her pocket for morphine, needle, and syringe.

But what Socorro’s hand bumped up against was something she could not identify, something with edges and curves, something that shifted like serpents beneath her fingertips.

Socorro pulled it out, held it up, and twirled it. Golden Js, dancing in the darkness, glinted in the blue dolphin light.

Slowly, Socorro looked past the earring to the empty pillow beside Leandro. Cecilia’s pillow. The pillow that had only minutes ago supported Julia’s face.

After a long pause for thought, Socorro broke into a grin, imagining the tempest that would hit the teacup if this earring were to be discovered under that pillow by Cecilia. Goose feathers would fly as she trashed the room, shredding paintings, smashing crystal, and splintering furniture. Then Cecilia would storm off after Julia.

It would be the least that the three of them deserved.

Socorro stretched forth her arm to tuck the earring under the pillow beside Leandro’s snoring face. But then Socorro froze.

She was an angel of mercy, not the scales of justice.

If she opened that box, how far would things go? For it was one thing to suffer the suffering of the severely maimed, and quite another to have to look into the face of everyone she passed to assess the status of the soul.

The room was silent for a moment, but rising, as if building to a boil. As it became audible, Socorro began backing away from the rumble of some deadly earthquake, approaching, swelling now, ready to burst, preparing to pelt down upon her the misery of the sad, inadequate, and cowardly. Their pain would now be Socorro’s pain too and there would be no peace for her left in this world. 

Socorro whirled and ran. Careening down corridors, she turned left here then right there, she didn’t care, going up some stairs and down others, on and on, around and around, the huge wave grabbing after her with its tentacles of pain, shame, guilt, and loathing.

Then, suddenly, she found she had run all the way to the main entrance of the building.

Shocked, Socorro stopped.

The entrance area was an oasis of emptiness surrounded by the black glass of night. The reception desk was unoccupied and so were all of the chairs. There was no one here in any pain of any kind and it was bliss. All Socorro was aware of was the rustle of her own clothing as she breathed into the silence that stretched out to infinity in all directions.

Socorro’s fist unclenched and Julia’s earring fell to the floor.

The outer glass doors of the hospital slid open, silent and cold.

Socorro stared out through them into darkness warm full of jasmine and the muted hoots of owls.

And then she just walked out.

* * * * *



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