Pediatrician Wes Gordon will do just about anything to escape his grief. When opportunity knocks, he signs on to work at a hospital in a tent camp in Haiti. One night while returning to his quarters, he comes across a gang of kids attempting to set fire to an underage rentboy and intervenes, taking the injured René under his wing. At the hospital, diplomat Anthony Crowley tells Wes that the kids involved in the attack are from prominent families and trying to hold them responsible will cause a firestorm.
In spite of the official position Anthony must take, Wes’s compassion captures his attention. Anthony pursues him, and they grow closer during the stolen moments between Anthony’s assignments. Escaping earthquake destruction for glimpses of Caribbean paradise. When Wes realizes the only way to save René is to adopt him, Anthony is supportive, but time is running out: Wes must leave the country, and Anthony is called out on a dangerous secret mission. Now Wes must face adopting a boy from Haiti who has no papers without the support of the one person he’s come to rely on most and may never see again.
Wes made an “after you” motion and followed her out of the ward. They removed their masks, and Wes took a deep breath. Hot or not, it felt good to breathe freely again. They walked down the hallway to another, much smaller area with fluorescent lights hanging from a beamed ceiling. The space had been converted into a sort of mess hall for the doctors and other hospital workers. Everyone at the camp hospital worked long, hard hours, usually six days a week, so there was always food available. Wes took a seat in one of the plastic chairs at a folding table and yawned. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so tired and unable to sleep in my life.”
“Go on and get your food,” Sandy told him, stifling a yawn herself.
“Do you want me to bring you something?” Wes volunteered.
“Anything, and plenty of coffee,” she said, slipping off her resilient shoes.
“Okay. I’ll be right back,” Wes said. He grabbed a tray and went through the line. It was a cafeteria with serviceable food that was nourishing, if a bit tasteless. But the food fit the bill, and Wes carried two trays back to the table—one with food, and the other with mugs and a pot of strong coffee.
“You’re a godsend,” Sandy told him as she took both mugs from the tray and then the coffee, filling the mugs while Wes set down the food. He sat, and they began to eat. He’d never really talked to Sandy much outside of work. “How long have you been here?” Wes asked her.
“About nine months. I originally volunteered for six, but extended it for another six. After that I think I’ve done what I can do,” she told him before sipping from the mug. “I can take the misery, the rain, the heat—God, the heat—but I think what’s driving me home is this terrible coffee.” She sipped and grimaced. “What I wouldn’t give for a rich cappuccino right about now.” She held the mug in her hands and breathed deeply.
“Me too,” Wes sighed. He sipped, and the coffee went down hot and hard, like the moonshine his uncle made when he was a kid. He and his friends used to sneak sips of it. “Reminds me of homemade whiskey—take too many sips and you end up flat on your ass.”
“Amen, brother,” she said, raising her mug. She took another drink and then began to eat.
Scalloped potatoes and ham stared up at Wes from the plate. He remembered what his mother used to make and knew this was going to be absolutely nothing like it. But he ate anyway, because it was food and he needed the energy. He still had hours to go before his shift ended. “I’ve been here four months and have three months to go myself ,” Wes said for something to talk about.
“Why’d you volunteer?” Sandy asked.
Wes sighed loudly. “I’ve been blessed with so much. I earned a scholarship to medical school, and after I graduated I wanted to see the world and do some good.”
Sandy stared at him hard and then smiled. “That’s the bullshit answer. The political one you tell people because it’s the right things to say. I know; I’ve used it more times than I can count. What’s the real one?”
“Honestly, I was hoping I could do some good in the world,” Wes answered.
“Okay,” Sandy said. “Most of us are here because we want to help, but I can guarantee there’s always another reason.” She lifted her mug to her lips, but didn’t actually take a drink. “What are you running away from?” Wes stared back at her with his eyebrows raised. “Fine. I’ll go first. I’m really here because I wanted a tropical vacation.” She flashed a quick smile and arched her brow.
Wes leaned over the table. “Next time, specify a location with cabanas and gorgeous shirtless pool boys. That’s my idea of heaven.”
She smiled, and tension drained out of her body. “I never would have guessed. You’ve asked me to join you for dinner a few times, and I always thought….” She snickered and then began to laugh outright.
“You thought I was…?” Wes joined in her laughter. “God, no. I was just interested in being friends with someone who understands.” Their laughter was short-lived, and they returned to the food, eating now in companionable silence. “Does it ever get to you?” he finally asked once they were nearly done with the food.
“Of course,” Sandy answered with a shrug. “When I first got here there were nights I damned near cried myself to sleep. But then I got up and went to work. Things are changing, but way too slowly.” She pushed away her plate and closed her blue eyes. “It’s hardest working with the children.”
“Yes, it is. I went into this profession because I love kids and I figured I’d get to work with them. I didn’t really understand that most of the time I’d be working with the sick ones,” Wes admitted, and Sandy smiled.
“So, I’m dying to ask about this ex-boyfriend of yours….”
“I don’t talk about it much here,” Wes said, looking around. “Rumors fly, and I don’t want it to become an issue at work. That could very easily happen.” This was Haiti, the Caribbean, where views were very traditional and much less tolerant. Things had been bad enough in the small coal town in West Virginia where he grew up, but the people there were PFLAG supporters compared to the attitudes in Haiti.
“I understand,” Sandy said. Wes refilled her mug and then his own, and they talked a bit as they finished their coffee. Then he took care of the trays and dishes before walking back to the ward with her.
Wes worked for several more hours. There were so many children, and all of them deserved his attention. He got the pleasure of releasing some children, but it seemed like for every one he got on the road to recovery, two more came in the door. Finally, his relief came in, and Wes left the hospital for the night. He was half asleep on his feet as he walked to the exit. Unlike the hospitals back home, no door swung open for him. He pushed open the heavy door and stepped out into the soupy, tropical air. The hospital was at the terminal end of the old airport, the rest of the area a makeshift city. Except this city was made up of tents and shelters with walls made up of whatever could be scrounged from the ruined buildings of Port-au-Prince —wood, poles, fallen billboards. Roofs were sometimes canvas, but more often tarps lashed to whatever was nearby to provide some shelter from either the torrential rains or the beating, merciless, tropical sun. Thousands, tens of thousands of people called this place home now, more than two, no, closer to three years after the earthquake that had leveled or damaged much of the city. And it was never quiet. The sound of so many people packed so closely together sounded a bit like a beehive on steroids—not quiet, but with no one sound standing out as everything blended into a buzzing cacophony.
He began walking around the lighted perimeter of the building toward a compound adjacent to the hospital, where he had a room. He’d just rounded the corner when a bloodcurdling scream of absolute terror pierced the night, drowning out everything else. Wes began to run in that direction and heard others shifting around him. Another scream followed the first, this one fainter, but it sent a shock through his bones and he ran faster. “What’s going on?” Wes yelled and kept running. He could now make out other footsteps, and as he passed the last tent in a row, he spotted a small group of men, yelling in anger. One of them, taller than the rest, held a small gasoline can. “Get the fuck away!” Wes screamed, and all the men turned toward him. Wes saw they weren’t really men, but older boys. Back home, they might be going off to college, but here they were out to cause trouble.