He should have never shown his parents the letter.
Dr. Liam Frank got out of the back seat of his parents’ shiny black Chrysler New Yorker and opened the door for his mother. He should have never let his parents drive him to the airport either—he wasn’t in the mood for a lecture.
“Well, I think it’s a mistake, leaving your dream job to go chasing after Penny.” His mother, wearing her little white gloves and pillbox hat got out of the car and immediately stepped in front of him to straighten his already straight tie. “As if working for the Communicable Disease Center weren’t more prestigious than volunteering in Africa with President Kennedy’s new club…”
As soon as her hands left his tie, Liam stepped back and frowned. “The Peace Corps is not a club, Mother.” He turned to his father for help, but his dad shook his head.
“I’m with your mother on this one, son. They love you at the CDC now, but you’ve only been there two years. They can’t hold your place for a whole year. Someone else is going to step in, and then you’ll be out.” He shook his head.
“They were fine with me taking a year. A lot of scientists study in the field. It’s 1963, for goodness sake. It’s encouraged. I’ll come back a better doctor.”
“I still think it’s a mistake, Liam. I know you think you love this girl, but she doesn’t have her head screwed on straight.
Remember how she supported that wacko group that broke into my lab, releasing all those lab rats? Took me three years to recreate those experiments, and I wasn’t the only one affected.”
Liam pulled his bags from the trunk of the massive finned automobile. “They thought there were dogs and primates there, Dad.”
“Which just shows how poorly researched they were, crazy animal-rights nuts.”
Liam closed the trunk with a tad more force than necessary. “She was thinking of the animals, Dad.”
“Liam, honey, animals aren’t people.”
“I know that, Mother.” He could feel his teeth clenching. “Penny knows that. She stands up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. It’s one of the things I admire about her.”
His dad frowned. “She jumps first and looks second. This trip is the perfect example. Did she ask you to join the Peace Corps and go through proper channels like a normal person? No. She sends you a letter begging you to come and then has this Dr. Johnson fellow pull all kinds of strings to bypass protocol. There are rules for a reason.”
“I know, but this is something I feel I have to do.” He felt as if he were a teenager caught coming home after curfew rather than an adult embarking on a humanitarian mission. He couldn’t admit to his folks that the speed and ease with which everything was happening bothered him as well. Sure, Penny knew he’d been inoculated against everything because of work. She knew he had a passport, but she’d spent months getting ready, and it had only taken him a little over a week.
“Do you even know where you’re going? What language they speak?”
Liam swallowed a sigh. He really should have taken a cab. He picked up his bags. “I’m going to Uganda. English is their official language.” They’d been through this already at least twice.
Deep furrows wrinkled his mother’s brow. “Not the people you’re going to be doctoring. They’re not going to be in the cities. They’ll be in the middle of the jungle. They’ll speak Swahili or a dozen other languages. I checked out that book from the library, you know.”
He’d seen the book. Copyright 1948—almost sixteen years ago. How up-to-date could it be? “Penny’s mother sent me her Swahili language records. I know a few phrases.” Very few, like ‘where’s the men’s room? please and thank you.’ “They’re sure to have translators if we need them.” He juggled the suitcases and reached for his carry-on.
“Isn’t Uganda near the Belgian Congo? There’s a civil war going on there.” His father held his carry-on bag hostage.
Liam knew they were worried, but the second guessing had to stop. He had a plane to catch, and they were double parked in a loading zone. He set down his bags as his mother opened her mouth for the next round.
“I’ll miss you, too.” He pulled her into his arms. She was as soft as a feather pillow. Her cheek smelled of baby powder as he pressed his lips to it. “I love you, Mother.”
“I love you, too.” She stepped from his embrace. The lines on her forehead eased, and tears crowded the corners of her eyes. She dabbed at them with a lacey handkerchief. “Maybe we should park. Go to the gate with you.”
“That’s not necessary. You know how much Dad hates to pay for parking.”
His father set down the bag, and they did their awkward half-handshake half-hug thing. “Keep safe.”
“I will. I’ll be back in a year.”
Liam slid the strap of his satchel on his shoulder, hoisted the two heavy suitcases, and walked into the terminal.
* * *
High above Africa, Liam pulled Penny’s letter from his shirt pocket and scanned the well-read pages with tired eyes. He almost had it memorized.
Thank you for saying you’ll come. They really need doctors here. Especially ones with your background. You should have seen Eric’s face when I told him you were coming. You’d have thought it was Christmas morning. Anyway, we’ll be together. I know joining the Peace Corps was my thing, not yours, but when you see the kids, you’ll know you did the right thing. They need you. I need you.
He ran his finger over the last five words. It wasn’t “I love you,” but it was close. She could have just stopped at “they need you,” but she hadn’t. That had to mean something.
He tucked the letter back in place and pulled his carry-on bag into his lap. Then, he unzipped the bag to make sure the gifts he’d brought for Penny were at the top. The women’s magazines, box of chocolates, and chewing gum were exactly where he put them, but the jewelers’ silver wrapped box with the red bow wasn’t. Where was it? He tore through his bag, shoving boxers and socks aside. He remembered packing the decorative gold barrette, worrying if she’d like it, wondering if she’d wear it, and wishing he felt confident enough to get her a ring.
He felt the sneakers he’d put at the bottom of the bag. That’s right. The tightness in his shoulders eased. He’d put the box in the left shoe to keep it safe.
He tucked his things back in the bag, zipped it shut, and stowed it under the seat in front of him as the seatbelt light went on. The stewardess’s voice crackled overhead. “The pilot asks that you please buckle your safety belt, return your tray to the upright locked position and stow your carry-on luggage. We will be landing in Entebbe, Uganda shortly.”
Thank goodness. He glanced at his watch. Twenty-four hours since he’d left Atlanta. Eight hours since Paris. Maybe four hours of sleep. His jaw cracked in a yawn. He hadn’t been this tired since residency.
The jet bounced as if it were rolling over a rutted gravel road instead of descending to the airport. The plane lurched and the bottom fell out of Liam’s stomach. He slapped his hand over his mouth and breathed through his nose. Great. Stellar reunion this was going to be. Him puking on Penny’s shoes when she met him at the gate.
A lifetime later, the plane rolled to a halt. Two goats were grazing at the end of the runway.
He was the last passenger to descend to the tarmac. The last in line to the terminal. Heat rose in waves from the concrete making the strange umbrella-like trees waver. Sweat formed on his brow. Liam couldn’t wait to take off his suit coat.
Inside, the air was still and the heat somehow even more oppressive. The spicy scent of sweat proclaimed the residents here consumed a different diet than Americans. Most of his fellow passengers had already been met. Hugs were ending, knots of people detangling and winding their way to the luggage area. His heart beat fast as he searched for Penny’s beautiful face. How tan would she be after three months here? Would her copper hair be pulled up in the ponytail she favored or down the way he liked it?
When he couldn’t spot her, his smile froze, and the queasiness of the pre-landing turbulence returned. Where was she?
His father’s voice whispered inside his head. “Jumps first...” He shoved it down. Something must have delayed her. Who knew what the roads were like between the camp and the airport? He took a deep breath, adjusted his grip on his bag and scanned the crowd one last time. A sea of dark heads but not a single red one. She’d be here by the time he got his luggage. He followed the flow of people to the baggage carousel.
A heavily accented voice called his name.
He turned back. A thin black man in a white shirt, dark narrow tie and dark pants waved a hand-lettered sign that bore his name. Liam nearly laughed.
He’d been so focused on finding Penny he had managed to overlook a sign with his own name on it. The man made his way through the thinning crowd.
“Dr. Frank? Dr. Liam Frank?”
“Yes.” Liam extended his hand. “I’m Dr. Frank.”
A smile encompassed the thin man’s entire face. He shook Liam’s hand. “So pleased to meet you. I am Abasi. Dr. Johnson asked that I meet you here and get you to your next flight.”
“Another flight?” Liam’s smile dimmed. His stomach was still unsettled by his last one. “I thought we drove from here.” When Penny said the camp wasn’t far from water he’d assumed she meant Africa’s largest lake, Lake Victoria, which sat in the middle of Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. “I don’t have another ticket.”
Abasi nodded. “You do not need a ticket. You fly on a private airplane.” As they talked, Abasi hurried Liam to the baggage area. “Come. We are behind schedule.” Liam’s green Samsonite hard-sides were the only two bags still spinning on the luggage carousel. “These are your bags?”
Liam nodded. Abasi grabbed the first one while Liam caught the second.
“This way, please. We are late. The plane waits.”
“Liam!” He stopped and turned at the sound of Penny’s voice. “Liam!” She ran toward him from across the room. A mini-dynamo in a blue camp shirt and tan shorts. Her ponytail danced behind her.
He dropped his bags and raced to catch her in his arms. “Penny.” He spun her around, grinning like a fool as she laughed. This was more like it. Their lips met. She tasted like heaven and Juicy Fruit.
The man beside Penny cleared his throat twice before Penny ended the kiss.
Liam let her petite form slide down his body to the floor. Her blush looked good with her tan. “Uh...Liam, I’d like you to meet Dr. Eric Johnson, Local Peace Corps Director. Eric, this is Liam.”
Eric Johnson was five ten, maybe eleven, slim, with dark hair, early thirties. The type of man some might consider handsome. Liam hoped Penny wasn’t one of them. The doctor extended his hand exposing the wet circles beneath the sleeves of his white dress shirt. “Dr. Frank. It’s a pleasure. Thank you for coming.”
Liam looked into Dr. Johnson’s light brown eyes as he shook his hand. Something other than pleasure shown from the man’s eyes. Liam turned back to the gorgeous woman at his side and gently tugged on her ponytail. “Anything for Penny.”
Her smile was like spring sunshine after a long cold winter. “Sorry we were late. First Eric insisted on coming, then he kept dragging his feet, and then the car blew a tire. It’s a heck of a long drive, and the roads from camp are worse than I remember. Anyway, how was your trip?”
“Uneventful.” Her cheek was silk beneath his fingers. He kissed her, but it was a public kiss rather than the private one he wanted.
“I missed you,” she whispered against his lips.
He wanted to kiss her again, but she pulled away. He settled for holding her hand. “I was just about to catch the plane to the camp.”
“Plane?” She shook her head and laughed. “The roads are so bad, you’ll wish we were flying, but we drive from here.”
He caught a significant look between Abasi and Johnson. Abasi tapped his watch.
“Uh...” Dr. Johnson stumbled over his words. “Penny, I tried to tell you. Th-there’s been a change in plans. We’re going to camp, and Dr. Frank is going to a...transition home.”
“Transition home?” Penny looked confused. “I thought you got all that waived. I thought he was coming with us. I told him we’d be together from the start. We drove all the way here to get him.”
“We shouldn’t have come. Like I’ve been trying to tell you, there’s been a change in plans.” His voice was authoritative and harsh.
Liam frowned in dislike. Not only had he just gotten here, he didn’t want to leave Penny. And he didn’t like the way Johnson talked to Penny.
“Oh.” Penny seemed even more confused. “But I thought... Are you sure? I thought he was starting right away. We’ve got a camp full of patients.”
Dr. Johnson shot a glance at Abasi before nodding. “I’m positive. Dr. Frank is leaving with Abasi. We need to get back to camp.”
“But the Rugasira family lives on the way to the camp.”
“He’s not going to the Rugasiras.”
“But aren’t they the transition family he’ll stay with?”
“No.” His tone was clear—stop.
“Oh. Okay.” She gave Liam a weak smile. “I’m sorry. This is the way it normally is with the Peace Corps. You live with a family for a few weeks to get acclimated to the culture and the language. I thought Eric got everything waived, but I guess... We’ll be together soon, I promise.” She turned to Dr. Johnson. “Right?”
He didn’t answer her. “We should go.” He grabbed her arm and started walking in the direction they’d come from. Penny stumbled after him, looking over her shoulder at Liam. “I’ll see you soon, Liam.”
Abasi picked up Liam’s bags. “Do not worry. He will keep your friend safe. Come this way.”
He watched Dr. Johnson guide Penny through a door on the other side of the building. Keep her safe? A chill edged up his spine. He took a step to follow her.
“Dr. Frank? Liam?” Abasi gently grabbed his arm, recalled his attention. “This way, please.” And just like that…Penny was gone. Despite his reluctance, he followed Abasi through a door that led to a different area of the tarmac than where the jet had landed. A dozen yards past the edge of the pavement a wall of foliage rose high into the sky. The hot breeze was heavy with moisture making Liam even more uncomfortable.
A thousand questions ran through his mind, but they all came down to one: “When will I see Penny again?”
“I do not know. I was asked only to meet you and make certain you boarded the plane. But do not worry. We are all very grateful you have come.” He set down Liam’s bags. “Wait here, please.”
An armed guard stood near a single engine plane that looked like it might have been in service during the last World War. The sight of a machine gun gave him pause, but Abasi called out what sounded like a friendly greeting as he approached the man. The words sounded nothing like Penny’s language records. Liam glanced back to the safety of the building. What had he gotten himself into?
The guard put a walkie-talkie to his lips, and Abasi returned. “All is ready. You may leave your bags here.” Liam reached for the strap of his carry-on bag. He hadn’t given Penny her gifts.
Abasi shook his head. “No need to carry anything. We will make certain they get on the plane. Come.” He headed back to the plane.
Liam shrugged and left the bags where they were. As they neared the small plane, the passenger door dropped open, revealing three steps. Abasi stopped at the side of the stairs.
“I will say good-bye, now. Please sit on the opposite side of the plane from the pilot for balance.” The engines started. Abasi’s mouth moved, but the roar drowned out his final words.
“What?” Liam yelled.
“Wear your safety belt.” Abasi mimed the action as he shouted the words.
Liam nodded, waved good-bye and climbed aboard the tiny four-seater. Once Liam was inside, Abasi closed the door and the noise level became manageable. A rough metal wall with no door had been added to separate the pilot’s cockpit from the rest of the cabin. Strange. Why the separation?
The two seats were upholstered bucket seats, but they were nearly close enough to be considered a bench. He wedged himself in the seat Abasi had indicated. The metal wall made leg room a joke. Liam tucked his feet beneath the seat, but his knees brushed against the wall. He searched for a lever to adjust the seat, but found nothing.
The roar of the engine changed as the little plane taxied to the runway. Liam buckled himself in. The world raced by the postcard-size window. A moment later, the plane leapt into the sky with a stomach-wrenching lurch. The plane accelerated and rose so abruptly and so steeply it was as if he were lying on his back rather than sitting on his seat. The single engine coughed.
If the engine stalled in this position they’d crash to earth tail first.
He looked in vain for an airsickness bag, and then he made the mistake of looking out the window. The wing seemed to brush tree limbs as it passed.
He wanted to close his eyes, but he couldn’t. At the CDC he’d watched potential death from behind a thick layer of glass too many times to look away now. Birds in the trees scattered. Sweat dripped from Liam’s brow.
The engine kept up its struggle until it cleared the canopy and rose above the clouds. The engine sound improved to an irritated roar as the plane leveled off. Liam took off his tie, folded it twice and used it to mop his brow before tucking it into the breast pocket of his suit. He prayed that was the worst of it.
Minutes stretched. Outside the windows the tops of mountains poked above the clouds. The only mountains he could think of were part of the Great Rift on the border between Uganda and the Belgian Congo, but then geography had never been his strong suit. He couldn’t let his dad’s worries infect him. The Peace Corps didn’t operate in the Congo. If only he’d had a chance to ask Abasi where he was going and how long until he got there.
He yawned. After the hustle of the airport, exhaustion caught up to him. His head bobbed.
Maybe this flight would be okay after all. He drifted off to sleep.
Too soon, the change in engine sound jerked him awake.
The nose of the plane dipped down and the engine’s cadence changed from an optimistic growl to an angry “enough already.” Nose down, the plane vibrated like an unbalanced washing machine. Metal pinged. Liam dug his fingers into armrests, his knees shoved against the metal partition. The pilot was a maniac. There was no need to change altitude with such insane angles of attack. If they were going down, please God, let it be over fast.
Liam looked out the window at the approaching trees. He should have never gotten into the plane. He should have insisted on going with Penny. He should have stayed in Atlanta. He was a doctor, a research scientist—not an adventurer.
Trees raced toward them. Liam tucked his chin to his chest, wrapped his arms over his head and braced for impact as they dipped below the tree line. His eardrums screamed along with the engine. He swallowed hard and his ears popped. Then, before he knew what was happening, the front of the plane jerked up, pressing him back into his seat.
The wheels hit the ground. The plane bounced on a dirt strip of a runway. The ever present noise changed again and then stopped.
The engine died but he hadn’t! Thank goodness. He longed to throw himself on the ground and kiss the dirt. Instead he let go of the armrests, flexing his fingers to encourage circulation. There had to be a different mode of transportation back to Penny. He struggled to release the seat belt.
The cabin door opened and a short-haired black man with machine gun in one hand and bullets crisscrossing his chest poked his head inside. Guns.
Oh God, what next? This was supposed to be the Peace Corps not the War Corps.
“Dr. Liam Frank?”
He nodded. “Where am I?”
The man said something incomprehensible and clearly not English.
Liam didn’t bother to ask him to repeat it.
* * *
Liam braced himself on the passenger seat of a door-less Jeep. The metal frame scalded his hands and tall grass slapped his leg, snagging the fabric of his suit pants. He hoped the next pothole wouldn’t knock him into the bush.
“Can we slow down?” he yelled to the driver, a native whose name was strange on Liam’s tongue. Bokhari.
"No time. Mwana says to bring you now. We cannot be late.”
What was the rush? He was simply going to someone’s house. The Jeep plunged into another rut, and Liam bit his tongue hard enough to taste blood.
The Jeep struggled up a rise, churning dust in its wake. The hot sun bleached the blue from the sky, leaving it pale as the flimsy clouds on the horizon.
He glanced from the machine gun mounted on the Jeep to the one strapped to the side of Bokhari’s seat. As much as he’d like to pretend otherwise, those guns were probably not protection from animals.
His mouth was dry as dust and his head ached. Had Penny gone through this? Had the Corps covered this in her training? Or was this his own personal hell? Bokhari knew his name, but he didn’t seem to know Dr. Johnson or Penny. And when he asked how far they were from the Peace Corps camp, Bokhari laughed. Liam was afraid to think what that meant.
From the top of a hill three simple grass huts came into view. As they neared, his stomach lurched.
The place was surrounded by a barbed wire fence and armed guards. Something was obviously wrong. Despite what Penny had said, this wasn’t a transition house. He doubted this had anything to do with the Peace Corps.
Two men opened a gate, and the Jeep roared through the opening. It stopped before the second hut. Bokhari turned off the engine. “You get out, please.”
Liam didn’t argue. He stood on the hard, dry ground.
Liam hit the dirt and covered his head.
Laughter assaulted him. A black hand reached down to him. “Sorry. The Jeep, she does that.”
Liam’s heart pounded so hard his ribs ached. “Yeah, funny.” He scrambled to his feet. His dark suit was dust covered and his shirt stuck to him like an ill-fitting second skin. What had been appropriate clothing in Atlanta and Paris was definitely wrong here.
“Uje. Come.” One of the other men ushered him to the door.
Light filtered through the thatched ceiling and streamed through the windows, but the hut was dim compared to the glare outside. A tall, fit man with short-cropped hair and a clean khaki shirt and pants rose from a chair beside the table.
“Doctor Frank. I am Mwana. Thank you for coming so quickly. I hope your trip was not too unpleasant.” His accent was thick, but his English very good. He offered his hand. Liam shook it automatically.
“Why am I here? I’m supposed to go to someone’s home—a Peace Corps house visit.” Whatever else this place was, it was clearly not a sponsoring family. As far as Liam knew, Peace Corps officials and local sponsors didn’t have armed guards.
“You are here to help. There is sickness we would show you, but first you must drink.”
Ingrained southern manners kept Liam from mentioning the rather unorthodox way Mwana had of getting help.
Mwana picked up the pitcher before him and poured two tall glasses of what looked like iced tea, minus the ice. “Travel makes one very dry. We must take very good care of you so you can help us.” He handed Liam one glass and then lifted his own. “Please, drink.”
It was sweet tea like that served with ice everywhere in Georgia. Even warm, it soothed Liam’s parched throat. It bothered him to stand and drink while a patient waited, but he understood Mwana’s concerns. He’d be no good to anyone if he passed out from heat stroke or dehydration. He finished his glass in record time and allowed Mwana to refill it.
While Liam was drinking, Bokhari carried a box filled with clothing into the hut and set it on the table. Mwana nodded. “Bokhari will see that you are dressed. The disease is most contagious. We find it best to have three barriers. One must be left in the village. The second at the checkpoint. The third you will change at the showers just before you return here. Would you have more tea?”
“No, I’m ready. Where’s the patient?”
Mwana smiled, nodding to Bokhari. “Very good. We will talk more when you return.” Mwana walked to the door.
“Put your clothes in this basket,” Bokhari directed. “And put these on. Hurry, please.”
Liam stripped out of his grimy clothes. Sweat evaporated from his skin raising goose bumps along his arms and legs. He tugged on the first of three layers of rubberized canvas union suits. This was going to be darn hot. Bokhari tucked the ends of Liam’s sleeves into rubber gloves and his pant legs into plastic bag booties. Each layer was tucked separately in a thorough yet rapid manner.
“What are the patient’s symptoms?”
“Very bad,” Bokhari said as he pulled a plastic ski mask over Liam’s head. He pressed goggles and two surgical masks into Liam’s hands. “It comes and takes whole villages in a matter of days. The screaming started in Kimgali yesterday. Soon, there will be nothing but bodies. We don’t know what it is or how it is spread. We burn the village, but sometimes it still spreads. We know nothing.”
Sweat dripped into Liam’s eyes. He blinked rapidly. “What are the symptoms besides screaming?” He’d seen slides of every viral and bacterial disease agent known to man, but there were things in Africa no one had seen before. It was one of the reasons the CDC didn’t mind this sabbatical.
“Bleeding? From where? Are there wounds? Sores?” Liam slid rubber boots over his bagged feet, surprised the boots fit his narrow foot.
“Just blood. Everywhere blood.” Bokhari hurried out the door with Liam on his heels.
“I need more information than that. How many victims are we talking here? Is another doctor with them? What’s been done so far?”
“Dr. Okimba is there. Villagers die. I have no answers.”
How did they expect him to help without any specific information?
A new man was waiting beside a hardtop Jeep. He drove Liam and Bokhari to the first checkpoint.
Liam got out of the Jeep, but Bokhari stayed in. “Just walk through the gate. The car on the other side will take you from here.”
Bokhari pointed at the gate. “We will wait for you here.”
Liam’s socks were soaked. Sweat squished between his toes as he passed on foot through the manned gate and was ushered into an old Packard with a broken muffler.
His newest driver was dressed in full firefighter garb, complete with helmet. If the disease required Liam to be triple-wrapped, could the firefighter garb provide enough protection? Liam wanted to ask, but the car radio was on at full volume. Broken music and static assaulted his ears, making thought difficult and conversation impossible. Why didn’t the man turn it off?
The car was a sauna. There wasn’t a dry stitch anywhere inside Liam’s personal sweat bag. His goggles steamed over, but there was no way he was going to take them off and risk contamination. The sweat would clear them again. They roared to another checkpoint, manned by a group of heavily armed men also in firefighter uniforms. The guards waved them through.
A half dozen small grass huts appeared in the distance as the car approached. The double row of gold and brown huts against a pale blue sky made a lovely picture. The man stopped the car just outside the village and flicked his hand, shooing Liam from the car. This had to be the site of the illness. There wasn’t any obvious sign of life—no children ran around, no chickens pecked the dirt, no dogs lounged in shaded doorways.
Liam opened the car door. Even as a resident, he’d never felt this ill prepared before seeing a patient. He didn’t even have a stethoscope. He hoped Dr. Okimba had supplies. Liam’s feet barely hit the baked earth before the driver pulled the door closed and the Packard’s tires shot pebbles into the air.
As the broken muffler’s roar diminished, another sound took its place.
Every hair on Liam’s body rose. The cries made the fake shrieks of horror movie heroines pale by comparison. His body froze in momentary paralysis. This was the sound of people in pain too excruciating to bear.
Battling aside the fear, Liam ran toward the first and loudest hut as fast as his rubbery legs could manage.