“See here?” says the neurosurgeon, gesturing at the monitor mounted on his office wall with a laser pointer. A bright red dot flares to life, garish against the white oblongs marching down the middle of the black screen. “These are your lumbar vertebrae—L4, L5 and there, S1.” I nod dutifully. “So, you have the wearing, here. And here, and here—so much wearing! This is not good. But you know that already, eh?” He chuckles. I politely curve my lips upward. “Honestly, I find this surprising, very surprising in a woman your age. I usually see MRIs like this from men in their fifties.”
Fort Jackson, South Carolina
“Moveit, soldier, formation in fifteen minutes!” One of the two drill sergeants in charge of our platoon’s field training exercise kicked at the remains of my foxhole as he strode past. I was struggling to pack up my sleeping bag; it was pitch-dark outside and the bag, matted with mud and wet sand, was not cooperating. Glancing up, I spotted the first few girls straggling over to where the other drill sergeant stood waiting.
I finally managed to force the bag into a reasonable imitation of a roll and tied it down, then swung my rucksack up onto my shoulders and nearly toppled over sideways. I had done this countless times before—why did the thing suddenly weigh a goddamn ton? I flexed my shoulders experimentally; it didn’t help balance the load. Maybe if I tightened the straps down harder—I was rewarded with a loud squelching sound, a tiny waterfall down my back and unwanted enlightenment. It had rained nonstop for the entire three days of the training exercise; the rucksack, as worn-out and full of holes as all the rest of our training gear, and all its contents were sodden all the way through.
“And here,” says the neurosurgeon, pointing. I stare at the amorphous gray blobs radiating outward from the white oblongs. “You have these discs, here, between the vertebrae—they cushion, that is what they are there for, yes? But they can also rupture, and yours have. Very badly. See this one, here, how far out this goes, to the right of L5? It is in pieces. And here, and here.” The red dot flicks from bone to bone, from one shredded mess of grayish tissue to the next. “So these three vertebrae have no real cushion between them, and that has caused the wearing, and the chronic and worsening lower back pain. But that is not all that has happened.” He pauses. “How old did you say you were, when you first started having problems?”
Fort Jackson, South Carolina
The black sky had lightened to a leaden gray glare, and I was struggling to keep up the pace set by the drill sergeants in the lead. We all were—several girls had fallen out of formation entirely, to the sergeants’ jeers, and were now riding in a truck far behind us.
I knew what they thought of us. They’d hardly made a secret of it. I didn’t know which I hated worse, the sergeant who made it clear how seriously he didn’t take us with his open flirting and less open assignations, or the sergeant who screamed in our faces what a waste of time it was to teach girls to play soldier.
Nothing was going to make me fall out of formation. Nothing.
I had gotten used to pain, during the training. it had only been a few short weeks since every muscle in my body had finally stopped hurting whenever I moved. But this, right now, was a whole new order of magnitude. My spine had gradually morphed into solid bar of agony and now that agony was radiating outward, turning my pelvis to broken glass and stabbing like hot blunt needles down the back of my right leg with every step I took.
I didn’t realize that I was losing all feeling in my foot until the third time I stumbled over nothing and almost planted myself face-first in the muddy sand. By the time I stopped trying to make myself believe I was imagining it, my entire right foot was a dead weight attached to my ankle.I dragged it along anyway, but I was inexorably falling further and further behind.
“Yes—it is a nerve, a very large one, called the sciatic nerve, that runs down the back of the leg,” says the neurosurgeon. “When the discs rupture, the pieces press upon this nerve. This can cause pain, quite excruciating pain in the hips and legs. And if it is severe enough, it can also cut off the blood supply to the nerves entirely. You have some permanent damage here—your right leg is noticeably weaker than your left. So.” He fixes me with a stern gaze. “I do not like this surgery on such a young woman, but, well.” He sighs. “Recovery takes twelve weeks. You are already on short-term disability, and if your job is a contributing factor to this—”
“It isn’t,” I say. I use the chair arms to push myself into a standing position, then carefully settle my weight onto my left leg. “The job that was, ended a long time ago.” I shake his proffered hand and limp out of the office.
Lisa Short is Texas-born, Kansas-bred writer of speculative fiction. She has an honorable discharge from the United States Army, a degree in chemical engineering, and twenty years’ experience as a professional engineer. She currently lives in Maryland with her husband, two youngest children, father-in-law and cats.