Of Little Consequence
By: Hannah Allison
The bullets whizzed past, explosions erupted all around. The sky was dark with the smoke from the many fires that seemed to dot the battle field. The bodies of my comrades' lay bent at awkward angles their faces once full of life now blank; their eyes stare unblinkingly up at the sky. I felt heartless rushing past their bodies but now was the time for survival and I knew what would happen if I stopped for even a moment. The trench was straight ahead a mere fifty feet away, if only I could get there. I dived into the trench when I felt an intense searing pain in my shoulder. My eyes widened as I hit the bottom of it the pain erupted and a new sound joined the sounds of the battle, my own cry.
I woke slowly tightly curled against the cold on the hard pavement. The roughness was only broken by the duffle bag under my head. The large winter coat I had pulled out of the dumpster did little to protect me from the D.C. winter but it was better than nothing. I rubbed my face as I stood, itching the unruly beard and mustache there; remembering the old days when my face was clean shaven. It had frequently found its way into women's hearts and often allowed me a fun Saturday night. I smiled slightly at that but then remembered the stark contrast that my life was now. Women often crossed the road so they didn't even walk past me, fearful of what I might do. I groaned as I stretched my neck; it was sore from the night's position on the concrete steps. I reached down to pick up the duffle that held my worldly possessions and slowly lumbered down the stairs knowing that the police would soon drive by looking for someone to put away and I wasn't willing to be that person.
A medic rushed over to me as I struggled to a sitting position hissing in pain. My shoulder felt as if it were on fire, blood had already drenched my uniform, and my lower lip trembled.
"Schultz!" The medic ran over to me obviously reading the name on my uniform. "Schultz!" he yelled with more urgency but I still didn't respond my attention was completely focused on my left hand which had come away from my shoulder covered in a warm burgundy liquid.
"ALEC!" my attention was brought up from my hand, as my friend Joey's voice joined the medics. I blinked my eyes hard trying to focus on the faces in front of me.
"Hey Joey. How'sss the war goin'?" I said between the panting that seemed to have replaced breathing. My words came out blurred, running together like when I got really drunk. The medic and Joey looked at each other concern coloring their expressions.
"I'm goin' take a look at your shoulder okay?" The medic said loudly in order to be heard over the artillery fire in the background. Not waiting for a response the medic quickly ripped my shirt.
"Hey this was my favorite shirt!" I stated gently as my eyes began to close. They seemed to be getting heavier and harder to keep open.
"Keep him awake. We can't let him sleep." I heard the medic command and suddenly Joey was there again.
"Hey man. You're gonna be okay…the medics gonna fix you right up. You'll be back to bedding girls in no time." I smiled slightly but it quickly turned into a grimace as my shoulder was exposed to the hot, humid Vietnam air.
"Shit…" Joey said under his breath as he placed his hand on my leg.
I shuffled my way to the public park down the road. It was the place where all of us went in the morning because if you got there soon enough the rangers weren't being watchful yet. One of them even encouraged us to get washed up as long as we were out of the park by nine when the tourists started showing up.
I rejoiced as I approached the bathroom because there wasn't a line. Standing in front of the mirror I sighed as I looked at my grungy appearance, my fingers exploring the indents of my face. When did I get old? This same face had once made women swoon and my face was clear and bright. I had always had a natural tan and though that particular feature had stayed it had wrinkled quite a bit. My bright blue eyes were still the same color yet they seemed to lack the light that had once filled them. The thick, dark, brown hair that used to lie so smoothly on my head had become tangled and ratty. The color was now a dull gray flecked only occasionally with the color that used to be the norm. Things had changed so quickly and drastically that I still had a hard time understanding how it all happened. I cupped my hand under the faucet allowing the cool water to run over it before splashing the water on my face pulling my thoughts back to the time at hand.
It was becoming harder and harder to focus. The voices around me kept going in and out as if I were a great distance away and then suddenly close again. It all became clear as a great deal of pressure was exerted on my shoulder causing me to moan in protest.
"It's going to be alright man, I'm right here." My eyes finally adjusted and I looked down at my shoulder. The bandage that the medic held tightly on either side of my wound was already saturated with my blood. Even in my half conscious state I knew that losing that much blood wasn't a good sign.
I opened my mouth to speak but no sound came out. Noticing the problem Joey grabbed my canteen and held it to my lips allowing me to drink the lukewarm liquid. I nodded my thanks and then moaned as another wave of pain washed over my body.
The medic said something to my friend before straightening up and hurrying further down the trench toward the bunker. Joey took his place holding the gauze.
"He's just going to go call for some help. We'll be getting you off the front soon."
"Man, if I don't make it…" Joey cut me off.
"No, don't talk like that. You're going to make it!"
"Eric didn't." I stated softly, the fact only barely touching the surface of my emotion.
"What?" Joey questioned his voice quieter as his face contorted in a mix of fear, pain, and disbelief.
"I saw him as I was running over here; looked like he was caught by a mine." I swallowed realizing for the first time what that actually meant. Eric had been both me and Joey's buddy. Just last night we had all talked about what kind of food we'd want to eat when we got home.
I looked up into Joey's face just as it changed again to a hard stoic smile. "He never could run as fast as you." Joey stated trying to lighten the mood.
I ran my hand over the cool dark stone, the etchings bumping against my fingers. I often stopped by here after I finished my 'lack' of getting ready. My hand stopped about halfway down the wall, as they normally did. Shiloh Collins – killed in action by a bullet to the back of his head. Logan Smith – bled to death in the jungle because medics weren't available. Eric Fredrick - died when he ran into a land mine. Freddie Holland – died while being held as a prisoner of war. I paused again, my fingers slowing tracing the letters of Joey Lugini's name. He had died from Malaria two months before the war's end. My heart clenched as I once again viewed the dozens of names on the wall. They had all been a part of my life and now they were gone. Of course the wall didn't offer the information that I knew. The families that they had left behind, the heroic things they did and also the horrible things they saw. Some of them had to be ID-ed by the dog tags that hung around their necks because of the violent nature of their death. I suppose that if all that had that been written on the wall that it would take away from the family friendliness of the monument. I rubbed my shoulder feeling the large scar that covered it remembering the time that I had spent there.
I was in and out of consciousness. The consistent trembling of my lower lip and the sluggishness of my speech was apparently caused by the shock that the ordeal had brought. But I wasn't shocked. Injuries happened all the time around me and I had always known that it would eventually be my turn. So why was I shocked? The medic said that it wouldn't be long before the helicopter got here but I knew that it could be hours. Joey still sat beside me clinging to his M1 Carbine, gazing toward the top of the trench.
"What do ya say we move toward the bunker?" Joey asked turning toward me. "I'll help ya." I nodded my agreement, struggling to get up. Joey reached down, pulling me up to his level causing me to howl in pain. My stomach turned harshly bringing up the little food I had left. I spat the bile that was left in my mouth nodding to let Joey know that we could keep moving.
"How you feeling?" Joey questioned as he lowered me to the ground after we reached the barrack.
I grimaced slightly, the pain in my shoulder back to full blast, "Worse than shit." I stated honestly. Joey nodded his head before sitting back down next to me.
"Just a bit longer man, Just a bit longer."
The next time I woke it was quiet and the sky had darkened. Joey sat next to me his head drooped toward his chest, his eyes closed. Pretty soon it would be time to move, to bring in the casualties. I tried to lift my arm planning to wake Joey up, to let him know what was going on but instead I was greeted with sharp pain. The memory of a few hours ago came rushing back to me just as another wave of pain hit my gut. I held my breath until it passed and gazed down at my right arm.
I was moving again; heading toward one of the few soup kitchens that served breakfast on this side of town. Being that it was the touristy part of town it wasn't big into anything that would detract from the beauty of the atmosphere, including shelters. My friend sat on the sidewalk outside one of the many tourist traps as he always did, quietly holding out a tin cup. He had been blinded during the war due to a head injury. He didn't have family and had already used the government assistance that had been offered him.
"Hey Hank, how ya holdin' up?" I questioned.
"I'm doing alright. How are you Alec?"
"Good enough. You had breakfast yet?"
"Nah." Hank answered bluntly. I nodded knowing how difficult it was for him to get anywhere.
"I was just headin' over there. You wanna tag along?"
"Nah, I'm okay man; don't wanna lose my spot." He stated staring forward toward my knees.
"Alright, see you around." I stated as I continued walking away.
I arrived at the soup kitchen a few minutes later, hopping into the already full line. I reached the front and was handed a cup of coffee and a messy plate. Food hung over the side but it was still food. When I went through these lines I often felt as if I was back in the army mess hall. It wasn't good food but it was food.
I sat down at the closest table knowing that I just wanted to get in and out. I hated being in places like this they were always loud and even the smallest noises bounced off the walls making everything even louder. I shoveled the breakfast into my mouth and drank the bitter lukewarm liquid quickly more than eager to get out of the crowded dining hall.
When I left I started to head back the direction that I had come but instead turned in the opposite direction; deciding on a change of scenery. That's when I saw it; a metro pass.
I was just about to wake up Joey when the medic came running up. "We gotta a helicopter but because of the trees their about a fourth a mile south. Will you take him?" The medic asked looking toward the now aware Joey. "I need to start tagging the fatalities."
Joey nodded as he turned toward me. "You ready." I nodded as he hoisted me up placing my good arm around his neck. We moved quickly or as quickly as I could. I was weak; the blood that I had lost seemed to have drained all my energy leaving barely anything left. The throbbing in my shoulder grew worse as it was jostled. We were within several hundred yards of the helicopter when the sniper fired his shot, imbedding yet another bullet in my already wounded shoulder. My legs gave out and I fell toward the earth. Joey turned, somehow managing to spot and shoot the sniper who was hidden among the trees. He quickly picked me up again and I blacked out in his arms.
The next time I awoke it was to the whirl of the helicopter blades. A flight medic knelt over me checking my vitals. I moaned in agony and when the medic applied pressure to my shoulder, the pain seeming to reach even deeper than it did before.
"You hanging on soldier?" The medic that stood over me questioned. I bit down on my lip and nodded as a few tears tracked down the side of my face leaving a clean streak on my dirty cheek. I clenched my jaw. I wouldn't be the one that cried.
"You wouldn't be the first nor the biggest that I've seen cry." The medic stated seeming to read my mind. "What's your name?"
"Private Alec Schlutz, sir." I answered still holding back the tears that just wanted to come loose.
"Alright Private Alec Schlutz, we'll be arriving at the army hospital in o'15. Think you can hold on till then?" I nodded my acknowledgment biting my lip to try to keep the pain at bay.
I sat on the metro, studying the people around me; most likely making them incredibly uncomfortable. Everyone reminded me of my past; the foster homes- if you could actually use the word home at all; my first girlfriend; my high school years; little of everything. But one individual caught and held my attention the most. Across the metro, seated by himself was a soldier in full uniform. He must have just gotten out of high school, the acne scars still prevalent on his face. He must've joined up immediately. My eyes seemed to lose their focus as I recalled the past.
I stood outside the recruiters' office with my graduation cap and diploma still clenched tightly in my right hand. "I'd like to sign up." I stated in a matter of fact way catching the attention of the recruiter who seemed buried in paperwork.
The old recruiter looked over his glasses at me skeptically, "You graduated?" he questioned bluntly.
"Yes sir, just today. I have my diploma here, if you need to see it." I said, quickly raising the diploma so he could see.
The recruiter nodded curtly, "You realize that you'll be required to do a tour of duty."
"That's why I'm signing up sir." The man seemed to grunt a response as he rummaged though the stack of paperwork in front of him fishing out the paperwork that he needed.
"Fill out these forms, I'll get you signed up for the physical, and I'll need to see your diploma, soldier."
The ding of the metro doors opening pulls me from the past and back into the life that I am living now.
Once the helicopter landed my world became a rush of activity. Surgeons, Core man, and nurses surrounded the helicopter quickly unloading the wounded soldiers from both sides and then it was my turn. They quickly loaded me onto a waiting stretcher and I was carried to a jeep that waited just at the edge of the clearing where the helicopter landed and we took off down the bumpy road. My eyes began to close as we neared the compound, the pain, heat, and blood loss finally catching up to me causing me to black out.
My eyes opened slowly, gradually focusing on my surroundings. I was in a large room where beds seemed to be the only real furnishing. Women in military uniform, the nurses I soon realized, bustled about the room moving from bed to bed caring for the half dressed men that seemed to fill all of them. I blinked, trying to remove the continuing haziness from my mind and vision. Two people caught my attention at the end of the room, one, a nurse talked to a man in a surgical coat, obviously a doctor; gesturing toward me. The doctor looked over, nodded gently and started walking over to me.
"Hey Alec; do you mind if I call you Alec?" I shook my head that I didn't as the doctor sat on the edge of my bed.
The doctor smiled than questioned, "How you feelin'?"
I glanced down at my shoulder for the first time since waking up. It was covered in a white bandage that crisscrossed over my chest. My arm was held to the side of my stomach with a bandage that wrapped around my stomach. The pain seemed to have eased most likely due to the drugs that were now coursing through my system from the IV that stuck out of the crook of my left arm. "Alright I guess." I stated simply after a moment of hesitation.
"Good," the doctor replied nodding, "that means that we have your pain well managed." He paused before continuing. "So they tell me that you were shot twice; you're pretty lucky to be alive."
The doctor looked down at his hands and then back up at me. "Alec, you sustained major injury to your Brachial Plexus, a nerve cluster in your upper shoulder." The doctor paused and then continued when I didn't respond. "We think that the first bullet that lodged itself in your shoulder was hit by the other bullet when it entered. It caused both bullets to fragment, sending shrapnel further into the nerve cluster."
I nodded, "How long will the recovery take?" I questioned bluntly not even considering the other possibility.
The doctor looked toward his folded hands again before once again looking me in the eye. "Alec. We don't think you'll ever regain the motion in your arm. The damage was so great that if you could even move your fingers it would be a miracle."
My eyes widen as I realized what the surgeon had just said. My left hand quickly ran up my right arm gently brushing against the snow white bandages; touching my recently paralyzed arm.
I walked to the open door of the metro car my right arm swinging gently at my side with the motion of my body. I used to hate that feeling but now it's almost calming, reassuring that I'm still alive. I strode off the metro almost forgetting the place that I now held in life. I was quickly reminded by the wide berth that people gave me in the crowded subway. I quickly made my way out of the crowded tunnel leaving behind the sound of the shrill whistle that always signaled a train's speedy departure. I headed west; toward one of the soup kitchens that served in this part of town. I had only been to this particular soup kitchen twice though both times it seemed to outshine the rest in D.C. The people were a little kinder, the utilities a little cleaner, and the food a little better; all in all a better place. The only thing that could use work was the coffee, which was most likely the bitterest brew in all D.C.
My stomach growled as if in anticipation as I approached the already full line that led to the dining room. I waited behind a boy of about twenty. He was about my height but was much more beefed up. He was talking to the boy in front of him, obviously a friend of his about how women were meant to be subservient to men, never treated as an equal. I knew this guys type. These young, more than capable young men decide that working is too hard and take advantage of the system. It makes me sick to think about sitting for a full meal with him so once inside the dining room I quickly make my way to the veterans table. That was another great thing about this place, those who couldn't carry their own plates were encouraged to sit down and have a meal brought to them. I didn't typically take advantage of this service figuring that there were guys much worse off than me but today I did.
A plate was soon placed in front of me, filled with beef and noodles, mashed potatoes, green beans, a piece of bread and a few cookies. I was just about to dig into my meal when I heard the boy's voice from across the cafeteria, once again talking about the subservient nature of women. I glance over quickly, planning on simply turning back to my meal when I noticed her. The girl serving coffee is standing across the table from the boy, her eyes wide as she attempts to take the cup he had lifted up for her to fill. But as his voice raises a slight shadow seems to play across her face. I can tell she's uncomfortable.
I couldn't look at the doctor, I couldn't look at anyone. I tried to force myself to focus on what the doctor was saying but I only caught snippets of it. He said something about going home but it meant nothing to me. I didn't even have a home to go back to. I had never had a family and the friends that I had had in High School either were in Vietnam or were against the war and something told me that these individuals wouldn't be thrilled if an injured soldier came back and slept on their couch.
I once again tried to focus on the doctor but my mind quickly wandered off again. Why'd it have to be my right arm? If only it had been my left. If it had been my left I could've possibly gotten a job back in the States, but with my right being gone there was no way someone would hire me.
"Alec." My attention is immediately pulled back to the doctor sitting on the end of my bed. "This isn't the end of the road, alright. We'll get you through this." The doctor stated sternly, you could tell that this wasn't the first time he had had to deliver this speech.
"Yes sir." I reply, attempting to sound strong. All I want to do is cry over the fate that I now possess. It would've been better to die on the battlefield I think bitterly. The doctor pats my leg as he stands up letting me know that if I need anything he'd be around. As soon as he left I placed my left arm across my face, I just wanted to be alone.
The tears came as soon as the lights were turned down for the night. A nurse sat at a desk at the end of the room but she was deeply involved in paperwork barely paying attention to the men. I felt weak yet justified, as long as nobody saw. The quiet drops of water slid down my cheeks and onto the white pillow under my head. The pain that seemed so slight earlier had picked up but it was still manageable, for the moment. I had overheard the doctor tell the nurse that I was going to be in for a rougher night but for the moment all I recognized was the emotional pain that seemed to be turning to anger. Suddenly my tears were gone. Paralyzed! I couldn't be paralyzed. I'm young and healthy; I will bounce back from this just as I have bounced back from everything else. I am a survivor and I will survive. I look toward my shoulder nearly sneering at the weakness that it seems to display. I want to rip the bandage off and show the whole world that I'll be fine. But suddenly I realize that I am making no sense. My shoulder will not get better and the world and life that I was planning would never be within reach again. I slouched down into my pillow, the tears gone, the anger displaced, instead a cool emptiness seems to fill me; as if emptiness could fill.
I raised my own cup high into the air forgetting that it was already filled with the ice water that sat on the table. When I noticed I quickly downed the liquid giving myself a slight headache and then raised it high above my head again. I watched as the girl noted my glass with a nod of her head and grabbed the young man's cup that had continued talking. I kept my cup raised even though she had already acknowledged me. I wanted her to have a reason to hurry, to get away. She had to stop several times along the way to fill others cups, often being given a hard time about not handed out more sugar. One old gentleman even tried to pull more sugar out of the pockets of her apron. By the time she had gotten to me she looked exhausted, her cheeks were pink from the heat that the coffee gave off.
"How are you today?" She questioned me gently, smiling broadly.
"I'm doing pretty well. You?" I answered automatically, slightly surprised by the conversation and the smile.
"I'm doing well. Sugar?" It took me a moment to respond. "Would you like sugar?" she questioned again.
"Oh, yes, please." I wanted to keep her talking, it had been so long since a woman had even spoken with me, "Where you from?" I asked automatically.
"That's quite a ways, what are you doing here?" I stated, realizing how bluntly I had asked the question.
The young woman smiled, "To serve."
"How old are you?"
"Eighteen." I was just about to ask her name when she was pulled elsewhere by another raised glass. "I hope you have a good day." She stated before leaving once again smiling broadly.
I never realized how desperate I was for human interaction but during the meal I drank three cups of coffee where normally I wouldn't drink one. Each time I succeeded in pulling the coffee girl over I found out a little more about her. Her name was Sophie, she was enjoying the city, and she was a freshman in college. And each time she came over she found out more about me, I was wounded in the Vietnam War, I had been homeless nearly ever since, and that I didn't have any family. And she thanked me for my service. It had been ages if I had ever been thanked for my service.
When it was time for me to leave I waved my goodbye to Sophie, thankful for the brief sense of the past that she had allowed me. As I was leaving I was stopped by another worker in the kitchen who pointed me toward a free shower house in the area, recognizing me as new.
The night grew worse, the pain becoming so intense that the room that I was in was blocked out by bright flashes of light whether my eyes are open or shut. I knew I was attracting a lot of attention. In my more lucid moments I caught glimpses of the doctor that had talked to me earlier in the day and several nurses. I moaned indiscreetly my agony making it impossible to do anything else. The pain was deep and severe. I long for pain killers, and attempt to broach the subject but every time the words seem to stick in my throat again turning into a moan of pain or taken back by a sharp inhale of oxygen.
"Please…" I manage to gasp out, holding tight to the edge of the bed with my one good arm. My face is screwed up, my eyes tightly closed trying to block out the intense anguish that I feel.
A voice breaks through the haze the sound of Eric's voice but that was impossible because I saw him on the battlefield. "Alec, we can't give you any more pain meds." The voice changes again and I recognize the doctor's voice again. "You wouldn't make it through the night if we did."
Another voice cut in, a female voice. "What about sleeping pills?"
"We can't risk how they might react with the pain pills already in his system." I groan again the pain causing my stomach to flip flop and suddenly I'm bent over throwing up over the side of my mattress. I fall back onto my pillow quickly drifting into blessed unconsciousness.
The doctor visited me the next morning; his eyes appear droopy and tired like he had sat up all night. "You don't look so great Doc." I stated lightly, knowing exactly why he looked that way.
"You don't look all that great yourself." The doctor teased back. That's when I noticed the mirror that sat on my bedside table. I picked it up curious to see the look he was referring to. When my face appears in the glass I can barely recognize myself. My skin appears to be a yellowish tone, most likely due to the paleness of my complexion and the lighting in the hospital ward. My blue eyes look wide and the skin under them is darkened greatly by large half moons. I nodded my agreement as I placed the mirror back on the bedside table, grimacing slightly at the way that it pulls on my stitches.
"Will I continue to keep you from your sleep?" I question quietly turning back toward the doctor.
"For awhile, but the pain will diminish over time." The doctor answered understanding exactly what I was actually asking.
I nodded slowly my thoughts catching on one word, 'diminished' a word that means lessen but can relay so much more. This pain will never stop, not completely.
I put on an easy going smile, "So, if we're going to be spending nights together, I figure I should at least know your name."
I head across the street to the shower house that had been pointed out to me, trying to remember the last time a person had treated me with such kindness. It had been awhile. Even after I had returned from Vietnam people hadn't necessarily rolled out the red carpet, too many people disagreed with the war and displaced their anger at me and the other soldiers that returned. I will always remember coming into the airport.
My arm was still taped to my side causing my uniform to sit on my shoulders in a slightly skewed position. The guys on my flight were so excited to be heading back home and getting to see their families. One of the guys on the flight, a Jacob Lark was going to meet his one year old daughter for the first time. To say the least emotions were running high. There were about twenty-five of us that day on the plane. Many of them were going home because their tour of duty was over but a couple other guys, like me were being sent home because of injuries. I didn't care much; it wasn't like I was going to have a family waiting for me. I just wanted to get off the stupid plane and attempt to figure out the rest of my life.
When we got off the plane we were surrounded by an agitated group of protesters. Signs were held up that called us Killers and Murders. We were guided out of that but not before the message was made clear to all of us, we were still in a war zone.
The flight attendant led us to a small room located inside of the airport, the place that families waited to greet their loved ones. The soldiers that I had traveled with immediately found their families, clinging to their crying wives and holding tight to the children that barely recognized them. I was just about to turn toward the door when I saw her.
Annette, one of my old flings from High School was standing in the back corner of the room trying to see over the crowd. I slowly made my way toward her taking in the look of her. "Hey Annie." Her wandering eyes quickly turn toward me, looking me up and down.
"How did you know I was coming in today?"
"Oh, you know small town; word gets around. They told your foster parents who told the Smits who told my parents who passed the knowledge on to me." Annie said in a careless tone as she attempted not to look at the arm or the bare chest that it revealed.
"What are you doing here? I mean I wasn't really expecting anyone." I questioned.
"I just figured someone should be here to pick you up." I nod my reply hoping it comes across as a kind of thank you. "So I'm parked outside…" Annie questioned more than stated, I quickly nodded my head in assent.
By the time we made it out to the car we're laughing but something still seems off. The sparkle on her finger tells me what it is. "How long have you been married for?" I question bluntly.
Annie seems to blush a bit but quickly recovers, "A little over a year." She pauses to lick her lips and then continues, "He didn't really want me to come, doesn't really support the war effort." I nod slowly, fully understanding why Annie seems so reserved.
As if an old romance isn't awkward enough why not add a pacifist. "Who is it?" I question.
"Eddie Beakerson." I almost laugh when I hear this response. Eddie was the kid that I had always cheated off in Biology. I must have smirked slightly because Annie quickly begins to fill the silence with meaningless jabber.
After we had said good bye that day I never talked to Annie again, not that I had anything against her but our paths never seemed to cross. She was most likely a soccer Mom and well I became a bum.
I walked into the shower house where I was once again greeted at the door. They handed me a clean towel, soap, and a razor and showed me down the hall to where the showers were located.
My eyes widen in terror as the image of Eric lying on the ground fills my vision, only broken by the flashes of exploding bombs. The smoke begins to obstruct the appearance of Eric's mutilated body. The noise of gunfire and crackling flames fill my ears. I stand up from where I have been kneeling on the jungle floor. The hands of an unseen enemy seem to push me back down but I push them away. A loud boom catches my attention and I'm running from the sound trying to dodge the white hot pieces of flying shrapnel that will follow. Then I'm caught. I fight against the body that holds me but my arm won't obey my thoughts. I open my mouth to yell but the world seems to be growing lighter; the jungle floor turning to a light linoleum, the bloody uniform that clung to my body is slowly replaced by the bandages on my chest and the light blue hospital pants. My eyes refocus and I see that the arms that I beat against are the arms of one of the doctors. The arms that had attempted to push me back onto my bed were the arms of a nurse. The nurse who now stands in the far corner of the room her arms pulled close to her body, protecting herself from me. My good arm is bleeding profusely from where the IV had once been inserted. My entire body is trembling and beaded with sweat.
Fifteen minutes later I'm settled back in bed. The sheets had been changed since they had been covered in both sweat and my blood; my good arm now boasting a large bandage. The IV that had previously ripped my flesh stands unused at the side of my bed, they had said that it was too dangerous to put back in. The nurse who had attempted to step in had been relieved of duty for the day and the doctor that had stopped me was now filling in Henry, the doctor that had been assigned to my case.
I lean my head back closing my eyes tightly. This wasn't the first time I had had a night terror. As soon as the pain had stopped crippling my mind it had acted as if it had reason to have a breakdown of its own. Sometimes I couldn't decide which was worse, the physical pain or the terror of the nightmares. Apparently the explosion that had made me run had been a backfiring jeep though it sure felt real to me.
Henry walked over to my bed, sitting down without even asking permission. "Happened again;" he stated rather than asked. "What was it about this time?"
"Oh you know same old, same old." I paused before I actually answered his question. Shrugging my shoulders I try to leave the fear behind that even now feels so real. "…Eric; the front lines; the blood."
Henry nodded. We had gotten pretty close over the last week and a half, apparently intense pain and long nights bonded you with people quickly. "You know this is normal right? Plenty of soldiers experience night terrors."
I ignore his statement flippantly. "How's the nurse?"
"Nurse Sawyer is fine, just a little shaken." I feel like a monster.
I stood under the warm shower enjoying the feeling of cleanliness that it left me with. The grim seemed to fall off my body in sheets and every layer that fell from my body allowed me to feel slightly more human, more like the person I used to be. Luckily the shower house wasn't busy so the man at the front door allowed me to take a over twenty minute shower. By this time my skin was pruned to the point that it looked like a raisin. I stood in front of a large mirror, the sink in front of me held the towel, razor, soaps, and a set of clothing that I carried around in my duffel bag. I scratched at the beard that covered my chin before picking up the razor and making the determining swipe.
Once my face was clean I began to look like my old self again. My blue eyes seemed brighter, my chiseled jaw line once again displayed prominently, the last step to my transformation was my hair. When I was in the military it was chopped close to my head but I had always liked it a just a bit longer, just long enough to tell the color.
I walked slowly up to the desk and the man there immediately raised his eyes to look at me. "You all set?" He questioned.
"Actually I was wondering if you had a pair of scissors so I could cut my hair." I asked quietly, not really expecting a positive answer. The man nods before reaching under the desk pulling out an old set of electronic clippers.
"Don't forget to bring them back." The man states as he hands them over to me, I nod my head in reply as I take the clippers and head back into the mirrored area.
In another fifteen minutes my transformation is complete. I'm no longer the homeless war vet who never found his way back into society; instead I'm the man I had, up until this point left behind in Vienna, Virginia.
I left the shower house with a skip in my step that I hadn't had in a long while. I look at the sky noting the perfect blue and the chilly nip in the air and I start walking, not toward the metro but toward the touristy part of town. The possibility of the metro pass working twice seemed ludicrous; besides if I hurried I would be able to return before the sun had completely gone down, maybe even leaving time to stop at the Vietnam Memorial.
The day was colder. My nightmares had subsided to only once or twice a week, the pain in my shoulder had become much more bearable though I was told not to expect much more improvement and I was getting extremely good at doing things with my left hand. Because of all of these factors I'm being set home today. Normally soldiers feel elation when they hear that they'll be safe, that they can return to their previous lives but I'm dreading it.
It's been three years since I've been home, I've got no family, no real friends, the few that I had left after high school are probably all married possibly with several kids now. No, I'm not looking forward to it at all. My life had always been with the military ever since I had learned what it had meant. When I was little it meant a family and as I grew older it meant escape. After I had joined, it had become both of those things a way out of my life but it also allowed me to create a new life. The men in my unit were close knit and though the men had changed over the years we had still managed to keep a core group like Eric, Joey, and Ben. Out of that group two were dead, one was injured, and the last and only one was somewhere on the front lines. It made me sick to even think about it.
"So you ready to go home today?" Henry asked startling me from my reminiscing.
"Hey Henry." I state as he sits down on my bed, "I guess, not much to go back to."
Henry smiled sadly but nodded his head in understanding. "Game of Poker before you hit the road?" He questioned in a brighter tone.
"Only if you want to lose." I challenge as a smile broadens on my face.
An hour later my pockets are considerably lighter, Henry had continually beaten me at poker since I came to the hospital four weeks ago. Apparently I wasn't a good bluffer. I stood next to the doctor that had become my friend in the last weeks as the van pulled up. We shook hands and pulling away I found the money that I had lost during the poker game.
I open my mouth to speak but I'm quickly cut off, "Keep it, use it to start your new life."
"Thanks." I state simply allowing Henry to give me a hand into the back of the van. I waved goodbye as the van drove off wondering if I would ever see Henry or Joey again.
The walk back to my part of the city was much longer than I expected. The sun was riding low in the sky, the temperature was beginning to drop, and my feet ache like they used to after a night out dancing. I thought about skipping the memorial and heading straight to the place where I normally bunker down between the 24-7 dry cleaners and the Stop and Go but I wanted to visit the memorial while I looked like my old self. By tomorrow I would have a shadow coming in and the smell of the streets that had taken so long to wash off would be back once again.
About a half an hour later it was about midnight and I was finally at the monument. I planned to stay only a moment but my feet hurt and the names on the wall seemed to pull me into the past. I placed my hand on a name in a different section of the wall than I usually did, Henry D. Plutarch M.D. He had died when he visited a fox hole to treat a sick soldier, and was hit by a sniper.
I slumped against the wall sliding down until I sat leaning against the names; remembering all the faces that I would never see again. I shivered as the temperature continued to drop. I rolled myself into a ball to protect myself from the cold; my face toward the cool dark stone.
My eyes fluttered shut, I was so tired and the wind just didn't seem as cold anymore. I would move in the morning.
I limp down the street, rubbing my eyes trying to rid myself from the remnants of sleep that clung there. My name is Bradley Shoemaker. I was injured in the Vietnam War when a bunker craved in. Now I live at the mercy of the D.C.'s streets. No one will hire me; no family came to my rescue. God bless America.