by Seth Bleuer
Staff Sergeant X’s helmet slammed hard into the wall. He sat staring at it from the other side of the room, where he’d thrown it with what energy he had left.
The plaster crumbled and cracked from the impact of where the helmet hit, leaving a small dent in the wall. Little pieces of the plaster littered the floor.
He watched as the metal night vision mount on the front of his helmet snapped in half and clattered to the floor as the helmet landed with a smack.
Rage seared through him, threatening to boil over again. He struggled desperately to control it, wrestling with it for a few moments before he felt it subside enough that he felt like he might be in control. He stood with his fists balled and jaw clenched tightly and felt every rush of blood pump through his veins.
He blurted out a stream of obscenities at the helmet and took a half step towards it, ready to throw it again. Then a thought interrupted his rage. This is your fault.
“You’re the idiot that threw it,” he said out loud to the empty room with a half a laugh. He crossed the room quickly and reached a shaking hand out towards his helmet.
“Poor bastard, you served me well in two wars now and this is how I treat you?” he said with a small smile over memories half buried. He sat cross-legged on the floor and cradled his helmet in his lap like a small child. Another memory threatened to invade, a small Afghan boy with his head… He pushed it aside, couldn’t deal with that now, too. He quickly buried it back down. Deeper this time, straight into the depths of his soul.
“Gotta fix this now,” he said looking at the broken night vision mount. He decided to go out to the connex and find another mount for his helmet. It was just after noon and a scorching hot July day in Shindand, Afghanistan.
When he reached the connex Staff Sergeant X was already sweating profusely. He tried the first key on the key ring. No luck. Then he tried the next, and the next after it. The keys shook in his trembling hand.
“Well that’s just fucking swell,” he cursed the lock. He felt the rage creep back into his veins.
“Why the fuck can’t it ever be the first fucking key… oh there we go,” he muttered, finally finding the right key.
Staff Sergeant X began rummaged through the connex. “Now where are those night vision mounts? I know I just saw them.” His hands shook. All of that adrenaline that had kept him going was gone now, and he was left feeling tired and empty. Numb.
As he continued to look he could feel himself getting angrier. An urge to hit something burned inside of him. Looking around the connex full of explosives and ammunition, he decided maybe later would be a better time to find something to punch.
All he wanted to do at that moment was to regroup, go back out and find the motherfuckers who planted the mine that… He stopped the thought before it consumed him.
“I can’t think of that now. Focus, night vision mounts before you sweat to death in this damn connex,” he mumbled.
Sweat ran down his face from his forehead, collecting at his jaw, and dripping off down the front of his t-shirt. His shirt was soaked. “Damnit, it’s so fucking hot,” he yelled at the pile of ammunition and explosives in the connex. No reply. Well you are standing in a big metal box in the July sun dumbass, he thought to himself. Screw you.
Finally, he finds the night vision mounts in a small box next to the hand grenades. He grabbed one and started to leave the connex. Changing his mind he turned around and grabbed a couple of grenades, dropping them into his cargo pockets with a smile, just in case they went back out and found the sons-of-bitches responsible. He left the connex certain that if he stayed much longer he might actually die of a heat stroke. He locked it behind him with shaking hands.
The sweat ran down his face and reminded him of just how thirsty he was. Staff Sergeant X stopped and looked up at the scorching sun beating down on him. He closed his eyes and let the sun beat down on his face will all of its might.
“I’m still fucking here,” he said in defiance to the sun. The image of an explosion flashed through his mind, a flash and it all fell apart. He shook his head, watching the sweat fly off of his hair, and then walked back to his room.
In his room he sat cross legged again and picked up his helmet. He quickly took off the old broken mount and tried to install a new one.
His hands trembled, causing him to drop the screw. “Damnit.” He cursed, picking it up and trying again. Again he dropped the screw, watching as it bounced once and rolled across the room in an improbably and annoying journey that required him to get up to fetch it.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” he cursed, his grip tightening around the screwdriver in the rage. His whole body flexed, his knuckles turned white as his grip tightened around the handle. He imagined finding the motherfuckers that planted that mine and plunging the screwdriver into their chests over and over, watching as their blood spurted out and covered him. Blood for blood, he thought. That is the only thing that could satisfy his rage.
He took a deep breath, shaking the thought off, and got up, walking across the small room to retrieve the screw with an agitated sigh.
“Work you bastards, please,” his voice trembled as he pleaded with his shaky, numb, useless hands. He felt the rage boiling just beneath the surface. A hot tear streamed down his cheek.
This time he got lucky and the screw fell into place. He quickly tightened it down before it could drop again. Sweat poured down his face now and it dripped onto the floor. He flashed a brief and tired little smile of victory. He took two slow breaths. “In through the nose, out through the mouth,” he said as he exhaled calmly.
He drank water. Then he drained the bottle. It felt like nothing could quench his thirst. He willed himself to think, to collect his thoughts and make a mental list of what still needed to be done.
Josh was getting his burns and shrapnel wounds treated, minor injuries but he would still have to go check on him and start the paperwork. Check. Mountain of paperwork and reports that need done, Staff Sergeant X would procrastinate that, because paperwork sucks. Check. Clean out the blood and… from the Humvee used for to evacuate him. That seemed like the logical place to start, before anyone else went out to the Humvee for something.
Staff Sergeant X got up from the floor and started walking to the door when he saw his gloves sitting on the little table in his small room, right next to the door. Deep crimson dripped off of them, forming a small puddle on the table. His lip trembled.
His mind flashed and he saw his face. His body was on the litter being loaded into the Humvee. Staff Sergeant X was in the driver’s seat and turned around to help as best he could, grabbing a hold of one of the litter handles as he contorted into an impossible position.
As they moved the litter into the Humvee, his head rolled off the litter towards Staff Sergeant X. He moved with lightning fast reflexes, but it seemed as if his head fell in slow motion.
Staff Sergeant caught his face with his hand just before it hit the gunner’s platform of the Humvee. The skin on his face was so pale and perfect, so young. Unblemished even by the massive explosion that had wrecked his body. His dirty blonde hair was messy, sticking up in some places and matted to his head from sweat in others. He looked like a sleeping angel.
The ventilator had fallen from his mouth onto the gunner’s platform. Blood and teeth and chunks of nobody really knows had fallen into Staff Sergeant X’s glove as he cradled his pale face in his hand. His pale blue eyes stared unblinking into Staff Sergeant X’s. Cold. Dead. Gone. A small pool of blood had slowly filled up the cracked worn leather palm of his glove.
Staff Sergeant X shook his head trying to shake the thought away. He reached down and picked up the blood soaked gloves from the table.
“I’ll wash these first,” he mumbled to himself as a flash of anger and rage burst into through his brain, like a firework going off inside his skull.
“Fuck!” He spit through grinding teeth. “Fucking motherfuck!” his breath quickened. Every muscle in his body flexed, screaming for release. He nearly ripped the plywood door off the hinges as he stormed out of his room.
He walked quickly to the latrine with his blood soaked gloves clenched tightly in his fist. After a little digging around in the cleaning supply locker in the latrine he found what he was looking for, soap and a bucket.
After filling the bucket with soapy water, and grabbing a few rags, he made his way out to the motor pool where his Humvee was parked. Nimbly he climbed up onto the hot hood of his truck. Ignoring the heat he sat down on the hood with his bucket of soapy water and gloves and started washing them.
He sat in the hot sun scrubbing and scrubbing. His mind blank as his body went through the motions. Dip the rag in the water and scrub. Dip. Scrub. Dip. Scrub. The afternoon sun beat down on him but he didn’t notice the heat anymore.
It felt like shining his boots in basic training, back when the Army still issued the kind of boots that needed shining.
“I think they are as clean as they are going to get,” James said.
Staff Sergeant X jumped, spilling some of the water from the bucket onto his lap.
“Shit James, you scared the shit out of me,” Staff Sergeant X said. He wondered if James could hear his heart beating like a war drum.
“Well you’ve been cleaning those gloves for twenty minutes now. I figure they are as clean as they are going to get,” James answered with a smile.
Staff Sergeant X looked down at his clean, wet gloves. “Suppose you’re right,” he said, feeling a little embarrassed. He tossed the gloves onto the hot hood next to him to dry and hopped down from the Humvee.
He walked to the back door, making sure to avoid eye contact with James. “Shall we get started?” He asked, his voice coming off more agitated than he had intended.
James nodded, acting as if he hadn’t noticed. He grabbed the bucket and rags and walked slowly to the other side of the Humvee.
Once in the backseat he looked to Staff Sergeant X and started to say something, but quickly changed his mind. Again he opened his mouth to speak, but again can’t seem to find the words. James let out a deep sigh.
Staff Sergeant X looked over and nodded to James, his eyes narrow slits. “Fucking Afghanistan man,” he said, shaking his head. James just nodded and grabbed a wet rag.
The two men sat silently, scrubbing the blood and bits and pieces of their friend out of the Humvee.
Mr. X walked through the park with his five-year-old son, Alex. Born just days before it all happened. He had missed Alex’s birth of course, because he was over there. He had always felt that he cheated Alex by missing his birth. This guilt was buried with the rest of it. Maybe it was because he was born so close to that day. This was that day. five years had passed. Mr. X still remembered it like it was yesterday.
As they walked up to the swing set, Mr. X tried to help Alex onto the swing.
“Dad I can do it!” Alex said, shooting him a dirty look.
“Ok, ok, sorry! I forgot you are a big boy now,” Mr. X said smiling down at him.
He pushed his son higher and higher on the swing, listening to his sweet laughter fill the silence of the empty park. The morning was already warm, it was going to be a hot and humid July day, but for now the two of them just enjoyed the beautiful morning in the park together.
Mr. X knew if it weren’t for him, this moment wouldn’t be. Every moment from that one on was a gift, paid for with another’s life. Paid for by one who loved his brothers so much that he would lay down his life for them. No, Mr. X thought. No I won’t forget what you did. I will never forget you brother.
He smiled down at his son, hoping someday he would be able to answer his questions about what his daddy had done in the war. Hoping someday it would all make sense to him in a way that could be put into words. For now, he was just happy to be here with his son.
Mr. X sat as still as a stone, waiting patiently in the silent morning. The only sound was the water lapping against the side of his old boat. The green paint faded from years of use. His old worn fishing pole rested in his equally old worn hand. He glanced over at Alex, who is concentrating on the water.
The sun had just started to rise on this hot July day, a beautiful pink and orange and red masterpiece painted in clouds and reflected off of the calm water. Today is that day. It was thirteen years ago, but to Mr. X it could have been yesterday.
Staff Sergeant X could hardly believe that Alex was thirteen years old now. Already becoming a man, he thought. Afghanistan seemed so far away now, but it was always right there.
Mr. X looked over at his son and cleared his throat. “When we got there it wasn’t what I thought it would be, it was the wild fucking west,” he said with a small reminiscent chuckle.
“What?” His son replied with a puzzled look.
Mr. X pulled two beers out of the cooler and passed one to his son. He smiled, “Sip on it and don’t tell your mom.”
Alex grinned from ear to ear and pretended it was his first beer. Mr. X grinned and pretended like he didn’t know that Alex stole a bear from his refrigerator in the garage about once a week. “Let me tell you about the war,” he continued.
He talked for a while in a low voice. He told Alex about the people at first. His old friends from the army, the Afghan kids that would run out and beg for candy.
Then he told him about the firefights, the things that he had seen and done. He needed to hear it, to really hear it.
Then he told him about that day. The day that his best friend Alex was killed when his Humvee hit an anti-tank mine. His son sat up straight, “You mean I am named after a war hero?” Alex exclaimed.
Mr. X sat and thought about that for a moment. “You know, he was my hero. He was riding in the back seat of the Humvee, I was up front in the passenger’s seat. When we hit the mine we hit it with the back tire. Alex absorbed the entire blast. He saved all of us,” Mr. X could feel his face wet with tears, but he didn’t try to hide them. He had kept it buried for far too long.
They sat and sipped their beers for a few minutes before Alex broke the silence, “Dad, when I’m older I want to join the Army just like you,” he said.
Mr. X smiled, “I know you do,” he replied. “I knew you had the warrior spirit the second I laid eyes on you son, but it isn’t what you think. It isn’t the movies. All the medals in the world can’t heal your scars. You see, there are good days and bad days. I had to do things that I didn’t want to do, and I saw things that I wish I never saw. And I remember things that I don’t want to remember, but that I don’t dare to forget. Do you understand what I mean?”
Alex nodded that he did.
“But it wasn’t all bad either. I got to see the world. I met some of my best friends in the army and I wouldn’t change that for anything.” Mr. X’s eyes stared off far across the water. Alex sat quietly, waiting for his father to continue.
“You just have to figure out where it all fits in the grand scheme, son. A lot of those things are just a ghost of a memory now. The kind that are always there. Haunting. The harder you try and grasp it the more it slips through your fingers, like grabbing a handful of water.” Mr. X reached down into the water and grabbed a handful, watching as it slipped away through his fingers, glistening in the morning sun.
“All the scrubbing in the world won’t wash away that memory, that feeling, that moment.” He opened his hand and shook it off, drying it on his pants. His eyes still fixed on some far off location that wasn’t there.
“You can bury it but it claws its way back out, coming for you like a ghost in the night. Try to drown it in liquor and it rises up to the surface, bloated and more horrifying than before, like some half drowned demon. Hide it and it consumes you. Talk about it and words fail you…“ his voice trailed off. Mr. X sat silent for a moment.
“You have to find a place where it fits in you, like a puzzle piece. It is not who you are, but a part of who you are, like any other experience. It shapes you, molds you, refines you. You just live with it. Learn to let the things that don’t kill you make you stronger.”
When he had finished Mr. X sat quietly for a minute. He looked over at his son, smiling from ear to ear, “Alex, I am damn proud of you and you will make one hell of a soldier, someday. Just don’t go growing up on me too fast now,” he said.
Alex searched for the words, but didn’t know what to say. At that very moment he felt a tug in his hands that startled him so bad he nearly jumped right out of the boat.
Mr. X turned to his son and grinned, “First catch of the day! Let’s real her in!” He said, instinctively reaching for the fishing pole to help. Alex smiled at his dad, “Dad, I can do it,” he said with a grin. He had never felt closer to his old man.
They sat there in the sun, father and son, creating new memories of that day. The old one would never go away, Mr. X knew that. He would honor and cherish that memory, accepting the pain that it brought with it. But the new ones helped to put it where it belonged, where it fit, where it helped to shape, but not define a life.