by Seth Bleuer
The view is amazing. The murky brown water of the inlet is barely deep enough to cover the muddy bottom. The lush green vegetation of summer stands in stark contrast to the shades of grey of the open rock face towering in front of me. Pines grow in impossible places on the rock, giving it spots of dark green and brown against the cold grey backdrop. The overcast day adds layers of low clouds to wrap around the top of the rock face. It is a masterpiece. I don’t belong here. The beauty reminds me of the cold mountains of Western Afghanistan. It also reminds me of the things that happened in those mountains, not that I could forget if I wanted to. I look down at the KIA bracelet on my wrist. It reads, Killed in Action SGT Bradley Nolan. Tears fill my eyes and spill down my cheeks. It should be my name on that bracelet; it should read Killed in Action SPC Joel Stevenson. I will never know why it was Brad and not me. The tears blur my vision as I blink desperately to clear them.
I dry my eyes, take a deep breath, and sniffle my last sniffle, mentally composing myself before I completely lose it. I take a sip of my coffee and prop my bare feet back up on the table, warming my hands against the mug.
The drive up the day before was beautiful. Just a short 200-mile trip from Seattle. It should’ve only taken about four and a half hours or so, but I stopped several times after Vancouver to admire the view from Sea to Sky Highway, and once for fish and chips from this little shack on the side of the road. The speed limits and winding road through the mountain felt more like a challenge than a law. I like to come into the turns hard and feel the tires grip the road. Just fast enough where I am pretty sure I am in control, but not completely sure.
As I came into Squamish, British Columbia, Canada I saw a sign that said ‘don’t feed the bears.’ Was that for real? I think if I saw a bear my first instinct would not be to feed it. I mean, who the fuck sees a bear, nature’s giant killing machines, and thinks that giving them a sandwich and a scratch behind the ears seems like a good idea? I was starting to feel tired anyways and happened to see a hostel on the side of the road just past the bear sign. As good of a place as any, I thought. Maybe better than most because it was so beautiful. What the hell does it matter? I stare off at the mountain side again, and my vision grows blurry as my eyes try to focus. A hundred yards, a thousand, then somewhere else.
I reach up and wipe the dust from my eyes. I look over at Sergeant Nolan as he pauses to take a drink of water. I’ve lost track of how long we have been walking. We left before the sun came up on a foot patrol from our little combat out post, or COP as we call it. We went through a little valley and into the small village closest to the COP, just to remind the villagers that we are up here in the mountains. I sometimes wonder what the hell we are supposed to be doing, other than drawing mortar and rocket fire, probably from that same damn village. Maybe that is the overall strategy, sit around and wait until they run out of ammo. We sure as fuck don’t seem to be in any kind of hurry to win this war.
I have an uneasy feeling in my stomach as we enter the valley, the high rock faces on either side stare down on our squad with an imposing greatness. “Hey Specialist Stevenson. Hello? Earth to Stevenson! Joel?” I look down from the rock face to my right.
Sergeant Stevenson smiles. “How you doing?” He asks with a nod at my M240B machine gun. I huff with a grin. He knows the damn thing weighs a ton and I’m carrying a heavy load of ammo, too. He also knows that I’m too damn proud to ever admit that it’s heavy.
Sergeant Nolan and I go way back. We were battle buddies in basic training and infantry school then found out we were both heading to the 82nd Airborne and went through jump school together. I’ll never forget our first jump. I was right behind him as we got the green light and started our shuffle to the door. Brad was pale as shit. He never was a big fan of heights. As the guy in front of him stepped out of the door, the plane rocked violently once and almost sent poor Brad out headfirst. Lucky for him, the jump master caught him, took his static line, stood him up straight and kicked his ass out the door all in one fluid movement. I hadn’t been scared to jump until that happened. By the time I handed my own static line to the jump master and turned for the door, my knees were knocking. But I followed Brad anyways. I knew then that he was a natural leader, so I wasn’t mad or surprised when he got promoted over me. Hell, I’d follow him to hell and back if he asked.
I look side to side. From rock face to rock face and cradle my machine gun closer. “I don’t like this shit, Brad,” I say quietly. His brow furrows closely. He knows I only use his first name on missions when I am dead serious about something.
“What is it?” He scans the rock faces.
“I don’t know, just got a bad feeling about this.”
He smiles. “This is the only way back to the COP, bud. No way around. Unless you want to walk a few days east and try and come in from the west.”
I shrug. “Didn’t say anything about that. I just have a bad feeling, boss.” He hates when I call him boss.
I hear a shuffle from my right as some loose gravel falls down the side of the rock face. I look up at the one lone tree growing out of the rock and see movement. Shit.
I hear him before I see him. Dragging his feet as he walks, the soles of his worn-out tennis shoes scraping against the ground pulls me from my thoughts. As he rounds the corner of the walking path to my left, he smiles and waves. I wave back. He walks up to me slowly, still dragging his feet.
“Morning,” I say, raising my cup of coffee in salute.
“Good morning,” the man replies. He is short, middle-aged or a little bit older, with thinning dark blonde hair and a round belly. Even from where he is standing a few feet away he smells like old beer and cigarettes.
“Beautiful view,” I offer, nodding towards the rock face in front of me.
“Sure is,” he smiles a surprisingly white smile. He pulls a cigarette out from behind his ear, that he had obviously rolled himself, and lights it. “Say friend, you wouldn’t happen to have another cup of coffee would you?” he asks.
I glance back at the hostel. All of the windows are still dark. I had only seen one other lonely soul wandering the halls this early. “I made a whole pot. Let me go grab you a cup,” I say with a smile. The truth is I love coffee. It is one of the few things in life that still gives me pleasure. I couldn’t imagine denying a man a cup of Joe for no good reason.
I go in and top off my own coffee, returning with two full mugs. I hand one to him and offer him a seat on the bench next to me, but he just waves his hand and continues to stand.
“Thanks,” he says as he takes a sip. He sets the mug down and relights his cigarette that had gone out. We stare out at the inlet of water for a moment in silent appreciation of the view. “How’s the hostel,” he asks, looking over his shoulder at the building.
“Oh, it’s fine. It is nice enough inside,” I say. In truth it is my first time staying in a hostel, so I have nothing to compare it to. My two roommates had arrived late in the night and were careful to be as quiet as possible. I wanted to sit up and tell them that I don’t sleep anymore so they don’t have to worry about waking me, but I didn’t. I just lay there quietly listening to the sounds of them getting settled and then slowly falling asleep. The rhythm of their breathing changed as their bodies relaxed into a peaceful slumber. What I wouldn’t give for one night of peaceful sleep.
“I’m camping just up the way here,” he offers, breaking the silence again. I understand now. Camping. So he is homeless. There are a lot of people that are permanently camping around Seattle, more than I have ever seen anywhere else. It is to the point where I am almost numb to the plight of the homeless. Guess it’s no different here. “I was thinking about slipping in and getting a shower,” he continues, glancing at me for a reaction. I just shrug. What do I care if he takes a shower here?
“Showers are nice,” I say. “Plenty of hot water. There is one on each floor. Second, no, third door on the right. You have to get a towel from the front desk though, so you might need to bring your own.”
“Thanks friend,” he says, flashing his perfect smile again. “Steve,” he says, offering his hand. I decide that I shall forever know him as Homeless Steve. I set down my still steaming cup of coffee and shake his hand, “Joel,” I say, giving his hand a firm squeeze.
“So Joel, what brings you out here?” he asks.
“Nothing,” I say.
He glances my direction and just nods. “You a rock climber? We get a lot of climbers here.”
“Do I look like a rock climber?” I raise both eyebrows in question.
“I don’t know what a rock climber is supposed to look like,” he replies as he sizes me up quickly. “But, no, I don’t think you do.”
“I’m not,” I reply with a smile.
“So where are you heading?” he asks, his gaze fixed on the water again as a large blue heron lands gracefully in the shallow brown murk.
“Nowhere,” I say. He looks back at me for a moment and I shrug, taking another drink of coffee. Homeless Steve just laughs and smiles a tight lipped smile as he nods his head a few times.
“Where are you from Steve?” I ask. “You don’t have a Canadian accent.”
“I was born in England and raised in the States, in Indiana.”
I sit up a little. “Indiana? We’re neighbors Steve. I was raised in Illinois.”
“Where abouts?” he’s looking at me now, one eyebrow raised in question.
“A small town on the border of Iowa, you probably haven’t heard of it,” I say. “Other side of the state,” I offer with a shrug.
“I ran cross country in high school.” He catches my glance at his round belly and chuckles. “It was a long time ago. Anyways, I traveled all over the Midwest.”
“Yeah!” He flashes his impossibly white teeth again. “I ran in there. I actually remember Geneseo specifically,” he exclaims, unable to hide the excitement in his voice. “It was my fastest time, still my personal record. What the hell was their mascot?” He pauses in thought. “Don’t tell me, I know this.”
“Maple leaf,” we both mutter at the same time and laugh.
“I’ll be damned Steve, you do know Geneseo. Small world.”
“You’re a long way from home,” he says.
“I live in Seattle now.”
He looks over to me and nods again. “What brings you to the Pacific Northwest?”
I shrug in reply. I imagine he is tired of my shrugs at this point but I can’t help it, I’m a shrugger these days. It is a result of not having much left that I care about, so I just shrug.
“Fort Lewis?” he presses.
“Say Steve, what brings you here?” I ask, choosing to ignore his question. “England, Indiana, British Columbia. Are you American, British, or Canadian then, Steve?” Homeless Steve smiles and shrugs at me. I can’t help but smile at the intentional gesture. Guess my shrugging didn’t go unnoticed.
“Once you come out here and see this,” he gestures to the view in front of him and pauses. “Well, I just couldn’t bring myself to ever leave it.”
I sit in silence and stare at the view. “Yeah, Fort Lewis was my last duty station. After getting out of the army I didn’t know where to go, so I just stayed.”
Homeless Steve smiles at me again. “Me too.” He looks back at the rock face. “Vietnam,” he offers in explanation.
“Iraq and Afghanistan,”
“You have any family?” Steve asks without looking at me.
“Used to. I was married. We have one son,” I pause for a minute and finish my coffee. “She left me during my last deployment and disappeared. Divorced my ass and remarried while I’m getting shot at in Afghanistan. By the time I found her she had moved so far away that I don’t know how I can even be in my son’s life anymore. I think that part is intentional,” I shake my head and look off into the cloudy sky as I let out a long sigh. “How about you?” I ask absently.
“About the same. I had a wife and two kids when I went to Vietnam, came home and they were living with some Jodie ass hippie son-of-a-bitch,” he says, never taking his eyes off of the water.
We sit in silence for a few minutes. “So, you aren’t doing anything here and you aren’t going anywhere?” Steve asks.
“Yep,” is all I reply.
He nods his head. “I’ve been there.” He looks back at me with a tired smile. “Well, thanks for the coffee, friend.” He turns and then pauses. “You know, you don’t always end up where you think you will, kid. War has a funny way of not staying where we left it. If I learned one thing in this time I’ve had alone it’s that innocence is the first casualty of war. But it gets better. It gets better.”
I shrug in reply. “Maybe.”
“You know, some believe that the great blue heron,” he pauses and gestures toward the bird wading in the water. “Some believe that it’s a symbol of balance, that it represents an ability to adapt and evolve. Look at those long, skinny legs, Joel. You don’t need massive pillars in your life for stability, just as long as you can stand on your own. It might not be pretty or grand, but we’re still standing.” He smiles quickly and raises his mug to me and then turns and walks away.
I raise my own empty mug in salute back to Homeless Steve, and watch as he disappears down the trail. I sit for a moment and watch the gray clouds as they brush against the darker gray rock face cutting into the sky and realize he had walked away with the coffee mug. I laugh and smile the first real smile I can remember. Oh well, what the hell do I care?
My eyes settle on the lone tree sprouting from the bare rock and it becomes harder and harder to focus.
Shit. Ambush. The figure behind the tree steps out, the Rocket Propelled Grenade screams from the launcher before I can even formulate the thought of a warning. It explodes with thunderous fury a few feet away from Johnson, our radio operator. He goes down in a heap. I don’t even have time to think I just raise my machine gun to my shoulder, the safety already off by the time it’s in position, and I gently squeeze the trigger. The world around me ignites in a hail of gunfire. The high walls of rock make it hard to aim with any kind of accuracy. Our small squad is instantly outgunned and in a world of trouble.
I squeeze off short bursts of fire, mumbling ‘die motherfucker die’ like I had been trained to time my bursts, then pause, and repeat. I then realize the overwhelming volume of fire coming from above. There are too many of them. We are surrounded, and they have the high ground. Johnson is down, and we are fish in a barrel. I know what I must do. I make a dash through a hail of gunfire over to Johnson. He’s lying face down in a pool of blood, and I know he is gone. Oh God, he’s dead. I know if I don’t get on the radio fast we will all be joining him soon. I bury that down deep and snatch the hand mic from the radio on his back.
“Any station, this is Falcon 4 we have troops in contact. I repeat troops in contact,” I yell into the hand mic. I pause and fire blindly up at the cliff while I wait for a reply.
“Falcon 4, this is Cowboy 6. What’s your status? Over.” I start to key the hand mic when the world goes black. When I open my eyes, I can’t comprehend where I am. I’m staring up at the sky, my ears ring and there is a sharp pain in my left thigh. A moment later Brad is standing over me firing his rifle. He empties his magazine and reloads in one fluid movement, pausing only to smile down at me. “Not a good time for a nap, Joel.” He yells. God damn-it he is fearless. I look over at the smoldering crater a few feet away where the Rocket Propelled Grenade had so unceremoniously put me on my ass.
“Radio.” I yell. I can hear my voice shaking and wish I could be as calm and collected as Brad.
I stand up and feel a sharp pain shoot through my leg. The rounds are hitting too close for comfort, kicking up dirt and broken pieces of rock all around us. My leg will have to wait. I hand Brad the hand mic and raise my machine gun and squeeze the trigger. No short bursts this time. I don’t care if the barrel melts, it won’t do me a damn bit of good if I’m dead.
I pause and glance around, looking for cover. There are a few large boulders that the rest of the squad is trying to use for cover. Other than that it is a flat, dusty trail; nowhere to run or hide.
“Air support is on its way,” Brad says to me with a grin, shaking the hand mic at me. “Time to light these motherfuckers up!”
We stand back to back, firing up at our assailants. We might actually make it out of this.
“Shit,” I hear from behind me, right before a hard shove sends me tumbling over Johnson’s body. I grunt as I hit the ground. Before I can push myself up, the earth shakes with a violent quake. A moment later, dust and bits of shattered rock rain down on me. Grenade.
“No, no, no.” I scramble around Johnson’s mutilated body, numb to the sight of the destruction that has been reaped on his flesh and bone.
Brad is on the ground a few feet away, lying face up. His rifle is still clutched in one hand. His left leg dangles at an awkward angle and his throat and face are a bloody mess of shrapnel. I can feel the rounds raining down around us, but I don’t care. I grab his hand and squeeze it tightly in mine, as if through sheer will power alone I can keep him here with me. I know he is gone. A calm comes over me and I know that we will die here together, and that’s okay. I smile at Brad.
“I’ll see you soon brother,” I murmur against the deafening cacophony of the battle that rages around us. My words like a whisper into a hurricane.
I stand and raise my machine gun to my shoulder, my finger slides into the trigger well. I’ll die fighting at least. Before I can squeeze off a round, I am knocked to the ground as by the first concussion of a bomb. As I lie on my back looking up, the sky opens up and the bombs rain down from the airstrike. Bomb after merciful bomb make impact, blasting the enemy to pieces. I know I’ve lost a lot of blood from my leg and fumble for my first aid kit. The world starts to dim and then goes black. I’ll be there soon, brother.
After sitting for a little while and contemplating the conversation with Homeless Steve, I take the note out from my pocket and open it. It isn’t addressed to anyone because it doesn’t matter to me who reads it. I place it on the table and set the empty coffee cup on top of it to keep it from being blown away in the wind.
I stand up and walk down to the water’s edge, the cold rocks digging into my bare feet. I walk in ankle-deep and watch as the blue heron takes flight at my intrusion. The slimy bottom pushes cold mud up between my toes. I wiggle them and smile a tired little smile from the feeling. There is some fleeting memory of catching frogs in a pond when I was a kid floating through my mind like an uninvited, but not unwelcome, ghost.
I pull the snub nose .38 special revolver from my pocket and check the chamber. One round. I close the chamber and breathe in a big breath of clean fresh air and let it out in one long, steady exhale. I put the revolver to the side of my head. Its cold steel barrel kisses the warm flesh of my temple.
The blue heron makes a pass over me. It silhouettes against the sun, looking like an angel coming down from the heavens. I’ve seen it somewhere before. Another angel that came for me.
The sound of the helicopter stirs me from my blood loss induced nap. As my eyes flutter open, I watch as the sun blacks out from the Blackhawk lowering into the valley, a big red cross painted on the side. Doc is kneeling beside me holding an IV bag, his uniform covered in blood.
“Brad?” I croak out, my mind swimming, trying to reconcile what I know is true and what I refuse to believe.
Doc just shakes his head and glances over at the two body bags a few feet from us. I remember Johnson and Brad. My mind goes numb and I stare at the sky until I’m loaded onto the Blackhawk with the other wounded and my two dead friends. I know that I should be dead, but I’m not. Not because of luck or because I saved myself. I’m not dead because my brother-in-arms loved me more than he loved himself, was willing to sacrifice himself to save me. My eyes fill with tears and I black out again as the helicopter lifts off out of the valley of death.
I hesitate and lower my quivering arm. I glance back at the note and then back in the direction from which Homeless Steve had come. I open the revolver and pull the single bullet from the cylinder, squeezing it tightly in my clenched fist. The rage inside of me fades and my fingers slowly relax. Then bullet slides from my hand and makes a small splash, and then sinks to the shallow bottom, sending small ripples out into the water. They lap against my legs, and I realize that despite everything that has been thrown at me, I’m still standing. I may not be sturdy, and I might not be stable, but I still have two legs to stand on. There is still hope. I look again in the direction Homeless Steve had come from and start to walk.