"Back World" is a serial thriller about a young couple facing an apocalyptic future.
A different segment will be published each week.
Dina rolled onto her side to try and get a glimpse of her husband behind her. Devin was trying to stir, but appeared to be struggling for breath.
"Devin!" Dina shouted, the word sounding muzzy and distant in her head.
Her prostrate husband lifted his head to look at her and gave a weak thumbs-up before collapsing again.
The concussion of the blast wasn't Devin's first time at the rodeo. Like his wife, his ears were ringing and his body felt like it had gone three rounds with a 12-armed boxing kangaroo. From experience, the soldier knew that his first priority was to get his breath back, after having it sandwiched out of him first by the blast at his back then by his chest's hard collision with the concrete.
Slowly, his lungs remembered how to do their job and began pulling oxygen in. After a few breaths, Devin rose to a knee, still bracing himself with one hand. He looked ahead to get a better view of his wife, who had put her head back down. His heart, still trying to find its normal rhythm after the shock, skipped two beats then began a horse race in his chest when he saw the spreading circle of red soaking through the back of his wife's tan blouse.
Ignoring his lack of equilibrium, Devin leapt to his feet and staggered the few steps to where his wife remained on the ground, then returned to a knee to examine the source of the blood, which was now beginning to drip and form a small circle on the concrete.
"You okay?" Devin asked, the muffled words coming from his mouth sounding as if it was being filtered through a pound of aspirin bottle cotton.
"I think so," Dina replied. "How bad is it?"
As gently as he could, Devin found the hole in the blouse, inserted his two index fingers, and ripped the fabric away from the wound.
A piece of twisted metal was embedded in the skin, just below the right shoulder blade. The blood made it look worse than it actually was, but in wartime conditions any wound was cause for concern.
"Not bad," Devin answered. "We need to get you inside so we can get it out. I could remove it here, but the bleeding's going to get worse when I do, so we have to get something to cover the wound."
For the first time since the explosion, Devin remembered the museum clerk, who had been standing in the doorway. Looking toward the entrance, he saw the door was still halfway open. At the bottom, Myron's body was laying half in and half out of the museum, keeping the door from closing.
Still shaky, Devin stood and hurried to the fallen clerk. Outside, Myron's lower half seemed uninjured. Looking inside, which was a little darker, the soldier was still unable to find any marks or damage to the man's back or torso.
Then his eyes reached Myron's head. Or rather, where the head was supposed to be. Instead, all that was left was a ragged remnant of his neck, with blood still pouring out of it onto the museum's carpet. Trying to look further into the building from his vantage point, Devin could see a trail of blood. The line ended against a nearby wall, where a sharp and rounded piece of metal had impaled the pulverized remains of Myron's head against the drywall.
No amount of first aid was going to help the dedicated clerk, who in a bizarre irony had died at his post.
Devin returned to his wife, who was now sitting up.
"Myron..." Dina said, seeing the somber look on her husband's face. Devin shook his head.
"Friendly fire doesn't give a shit," the soldier said, reciting a common battlefield phrase he had heard far too often while overseas.
"We have to get you inside," Devin said, then went around to his wife's left side. Trying to be as gentle as possible, he helped Dina to her feet, supporting her around the waist while avoiding the damaged shoulder blade area. The couple ambled forward in a shambling lockstep, a mockery of the side-by-side stroll they had enjoyed on Baltimore Street. Was it really only an hour ago? It had seemed like another lifetime, an eternity past.
When they reached Myron's body, Devin pulled the door open wider, allowing them to sidle into the room without disturbing the lifeless form.
Once inside, Devin tried to keep his wife focused on moving forward and avoiding the grisly scene at the top of Myron's shoulders. Dina, unwilling to play the part of the demure and helpless housewife, turned to look at their former comrade. A small cry escaped her lips, and her face contorted with a pain that was different than the one currently stabbing her in the back. As she turned forward again, her eyes landed on the still-dripping head mounted on the wall.
This time, a new discomfort arose to join the Broadway lineup of sharp shoulder pain and pounding body aches, as Dina's stomach screamed to release its contents. However, the tough little artist refused her belly's bidding, holding down the retch by sheer will alone.
"Wait here," Devin said, leaning his wife against the reception desk. "Don't turn around."
The soldier went back and pushed the door open again, stepping around the body. Once outside, he grabbed Myron by the feet and began dragging it into the daylight, then well to the left of the entrance. Before the door could swing all the way closed, Devin dropped the lifeless feet and grabbed the edge of the moving portal, then stepped inside and allowed the pneumatic door closer to do its job.
His ears still ringing and his body sore, Devin returned to his wife and helped guide her to a nearby table.
"Lay down on this," Devin said. Dina complied, relieved to be laying down again, even though the particle board table was no more comfortable than her previous concrete resting place. Despite the hard surface, she was now fighting a new internal battle between her body's sudden demand for sleep caused by the loss of blood, and the insistent pain of the metal fragment in her back that had summoned the blood.
"I have to find a first aid kit," Devin said. "I'll be right back."
Dina's husband hurried into the offices behind the reception desk. It only took a moment to spot the large white metal box with the large red cross, which was held on the wall by a pair of picture hooks. Devin grabbed it, then spotted a water cooler next to the entrance of a tiny break room, it's clear plastic head showing that the five-gallon inverted container was about half full. Putting down the first aid kit, Devin went to the cooler and grasped the water bottle with crossed arms, then lifted and flipped quickly in an attempt to spill as little as possible.
Once upright, he carried the container by the neck with one hand and snagged the first aid kit with his other on the way back to the main part of the museum.
Returning to the table, Devin unlatched the lid to the kit and quickly found the scissors, which he used to cut away the rest of his wife's blouse and pull the remains out from under her.
"That was a Neiman Marcus, you know," Dina mumbled, still fighting the battle between lucidity and serenity.
"Now it's a washrag," Devin retorted, then began cutting away the bloodied parts to find sections of cloth clean enough to use for blotting blood and drying the skin.
Next he hefted the container of bottled water from the floor and carefully poured it around the wound, washing away the red liquid and better exposing the metal shard protruding from his wife's back.
From the kit he seized a pair of tweezers and a sealed four inch by four inch square of gauze bandage which he put between his teeth.
"This is going to hurt," Devin told his wife.
"Just goes to show you're not a real doctor," Dina said back to him. "They'd spout some bullshit about 'may sting' or 'you might feel some pressure.' They never tell you something's gonna hurt."
Devin used the tweezers to grasp the inch-wide metal shard and began to pull. Dina buried her face in her elbow, stifling the urge to scream that would have hurt her husband almost as much as the moving metal was hurting her.
The piece came out easily. So did the spurt of blood behind it. Devin grabbed the bottom of the wrapper dangling from his mouth and tore the paper, then pulled out the bandage and placed it carefully but firmly on the wound.
Using one of the scraps from Dina's shirt, he dried off the blood and water around the bandage, trying to clear an area where the adhesive tape could attach. Next he found the roll of noisy white tape, pulled and tore several strips, and attached them to the bandage and skin. It wasn't pretty, but it would hold.
"Done," Devin said.
There was no answer from his wife.
"Dina? Dina, are you with me?"
Devin began to panic, moving to the top of the table where his wife's head rested on her arm.
"Dina!" Devin shouted, echoes of his voice teasing him from the walls of the museum. He shouted her name again. For the first time since the initial blast on the east side of Kansas City, Devin felt himself reeling toward the edge of hysteria.
Dina was unconscious.