Short Story

May 17, 2010

This is my short story for English 5.  Enjoy, and feel free to give me comments.

Burying A Best Friend
Tim was never a safe driver, but as he drove north on the 280 from San Jose he took even more risks than usual.  Part of it was to beat the rain, part of it was because he was sleep deprived, and part of it was because he didn’t give a damn.  He pushed his Jetta to ninety, not slowing as he followed the serpentine curves of the road and swerved through traffic.  He was pretty confident that he wouldn’t get pulled over;  a man in uniform never does, and even if it happens, he would be let go with a warning.  It’s just the way things work.
Tim was going to Golden Gate National Cemetery to bury his best friend, or what was left of him.  In the week since he had learned of Peters’ death, Tim had tried desperately not to let it affect him, but it was in vain.  He was hoping to find some sort of closure by going to the funeral, but he doubted that it could be found at all.  He knew that seeing only a casket and a folded flag handed to weeping parents would do nothing but push him deeper into the hole that he was in.  And yet he drove, ignoring the lush green of the trees and hills that surrounded the road, telling himself that it would all be better soon.
He pulled his Oakleys off of his face and looked at himself in the mirror, not slowing down for a second.  His brown hair was an inch long on top, combed forward, and razor short on the sides.  His clean shaven face was obviously razor-burned, mostly because he hadn’t shaved in a week and when he did that morning he had done so quickly and without shaving cream or aftershave.  His attitude had overcome him, but not so much that he looked unprofessional.  He had always been and always would be professional, no matter the circumstances.  His eyes, a deep brown that had once been able to capture a woman’s attention for hours, were now dull and overwhelmed by the dark purple and blue under his eyes.  He hadn’t been able to sleep more than an hour or two all week.
Tim had met Peters when he joined his unit, fresh out of Medic School.  No one had started calling him Doc yet, and he was still struggling to find friends and people who would trust him with a needle within 10 feet of them.  But Peters was a young infantryman who managed to remain positive, no matter the circumstances.  Peters didn’t look a day over sixteen the day he came bouncing up, a grin and wide-eyed expression stuck on his pink, childlike face that contrasted with his blonde hair that looked white because of its length.
“So you’re the Doc, huh?” Peters said, sticking out his hand eagerly.
“Yeah, that’s me,” Tim said, as he stood up to shake his hand.
“Glad to meet you.  I’ve heard stories about you medics.  You guys like to stick people with needles and stuff, right?  Don’t you guys, like, fantasize about people being blown apart?”
Tim’s handshake lost its firmness as he realized that he expected a serious response.  Medics had this reputation, and Tim really didn’t fit any of those descriptions.  Giving IV’s was his least favorite part of Medic School.  He almost fainted the first time he had seen a pool of his own blood.  And he always cringed at the “shock value only” photos that were shown in the classroom.
“Well, we’re not all like that.  I thought medics just liked to drink and give people drugs.”
“That works too! I like drinking, and… yeah.”  Peters snorted as he laughed at the last part of his statement.
“So hey, uh, Doc,  I got this swelling in my crotch.  Think you could look at it?”
Tim hadn’t been a Medic long enough to know better than to fall for the joke, but he found himself enjoying Peters’ awkward sense of humor and his naivete about the Army and life in general.  He loved to talk about himself and the girls he was constantly chasing, which gave Tim the opportunity to not have to find anything to say and to just enjoying listening for a change.   While everyone else expected a diagnosis, or an opinion, or even an intelligent response to a question, Peters just expected Tim to listen, something that he was more than happy to do.
The unit began the process of deployment two months later, and Tim and Peters found themselves in the same platoon, which gave them more opportunities to hang out and talk.  Tim was kept busy with medical “missions” and classes, however, so their time was often limited to Breakfast and Dinner as well as downtime in the lounge of the barracks.  They had nothing to do but talk, but conversations on deployment are inherently different than conversations while talking to people from home.  Music, movies, and daily training incidents were common topics, with the latter being the funniest and most drawn out subject of all.  Tim and Peters were still new enough to the Army to trade stories about how tough their Drill Sergeants were, how hot it had been during Basic Training, and about how stupid some soldiers were and how they managed to graduate and go on to Regular Army units.  Ft. Benning, Georgia and Ft. Sam Houston, Texas, had been the most exotic place either of them had been, and both were excited for Iraq, despite what they had been hearing from the news: for every roadside bomb found, three were detonated;  the number of soldiers killed was increasing by the week;  Iraq would become the next Vietnam.
Their unit landed in Kuwait in the middle of summer and was flown to Camp Liberty, Iraq not long after.  Tim talked to a few people in their leadership and managed to get a room with Peters, despite their conflicting schedules.  Peters and the other infantrymen found themselves on convoy missions into Baghdad and the surrounding areas, while Tim found himself working at both the trauma center on post and on convoys.  Tim and Peters had been on a few missions together, but normally one was working while the other slept.  That didn’t stop them from getting breakfast together, which gave them a chance to tell war stories and talk about life in the desert and how much better the food was in Iraq than back home.  Despite the many inconveniences of living in the desert and being deployed, Tim and Peters adjusted well and even learned to enjoy their time after a few months.  At least until their routines began to change.
Tim was sitting on his bed in their room, books spread out around him in every direction.  Tim passed much of his free time in Iraq by reading books about medicine.  He was determined to become a better medic, and the only way that he knew how was by expanding what he knew about medicine.  Besides helping him treat his soldiers and helping to pass the time, it made him look good in front of the doctors that he worked with.  They trusted him to do more complicated procedures, which gave him medic bragging rights.  Peters burst through the door and threw his gear onto his bed, sitting down on his footlocker with an angry sigh.  Tim didn’t look up from his books.
“Bad day?”
“You could say that.”  Peters said, pulling off his boots.  “They’re changing our mission schedule.  Just when we get used to it! Seriously, what the fuck?”
“It’s the Army, dude.  You should know that they throw curveballs like this.  What are they changing, exactly?”
“Time, destinations, mission type.  Everything.”
Tim closed the book he was reading and swung his legs off of his bed and over the side so that he could face Peters.  “Are you going to be running nights?  Where to?”
Peters took a deep breath before he answered.  “Yeah, nights.  To Sadr City.”
Tim knew what this meant.  No more working at the trauma center, unless he enjoyed going four days without sleep.  A medic was required on every mission to Sadr City, without exception.  It was too dangerous to go without one.   “Well, I guess we’ll get to see a lot more of each other now.”  Tim said, trying to cheer his friend up.  Peters looked up and smirked, despite the frustration that was flowing through him.
“As if I need to see your ugly ass anymore than I already do.  You act like it’s some sort of treat!”
“Are you scared?” Tim asked, knowing that he wouldn’t get a straight answer.
“Me? I’m an infantryman.  Fuck no I’m not scared! This is some real Hooah shit we’re going to be doing now, man.  I can’t wait! If anyone should be scared, it’s you!”
Tim was anything but scared.  He enjoyed working in the trauma center, and he felt like he was getting great experience by working with the doctors and seeing the patients that came through.  But he dreamed about going on dangerous missions and doing his job in the field.  He wanted to be the medic that was saving lives as bullets zipped by his head.  And now he was going to get an honest chance to be that medic.
Two months of monotonous missions went by with no action whatsoever.  Tim was excited to be on dangerous missions for the first two weeks, but when they turned out to not be so dangerous after all, the excitement wore off and quickly became boredom.  He went from looking out of his window continuously and talking constantly to listening to his iPod and fighting off sleep.  He came to dread missions and to resent them for the sleep he lost and for the time that he felt was stolen from him.  But the missions kept coming, and there were still more than six months left in the deployment.
Tim stood in front of his Humvee, drinking coffee as he waited for the mission to start.  The trucks were still in the motor pool as they were being checked by their respective drivers.  It was impossible to hear anything except for the rumble of the trucks as they idled in unison.  The headlights illuminated the gravel-covered ground and managed to turn everyone in the motor pool into a walking shadow.  Tim heard the crunching of approaching feet and turned to see who it was; Peters’ blonde hair shone like a halo when backlit by the headlights and gave him away instantly.
“Hey Doc, so I’ve been wondering for awhile: what would you do for someone who got their balls blown off? Like, how do you fix that?”
“You don’t.” Tim said flatly.  “Pack with gauze, hold pressure.  That’s it.”
“So you just let the guy live with no balls? For the rest of his life? He’s ball-less?”
Tim sipped his coffee casually.  “Yep. There’s nothing else I can do.  And just think, if his balls are gone, so is everything else.  Probably nothing to salvage.”
“Doc, promise me that if that ever happens to me, you’ll put me out of my misery.”
“I promise, Peters.”  
 “I’m gonna hold you to it!”
“I know, and I’ll keep my word.  10 of morphine, one after the other.”
“You’re a good man, Doc.”
“I do what I can.”
Tim finished his coffee, tossed the coffee cup over the Texas barrier wall, and began putting his body armor on.  “It’s gonna be a long night, Peters.”
Tim never lost his childlike fascination with the sights of Downtown Baghdad at night.  The neon-lit shops and bakeries with men huddled in doorways and the roving gangs of children playing soccer and pleading “Mistah, mistah! Candee! Watah! You give to me!” were the features of convoys that he looked forward to.  Downtown was a relatively threat-less place at night, and so the convoy was able to go faster and be less vigilant.  The route to Sadr City, however, involved a choke point bridge that, due to brilliant Iraqi engineering, could only handle one vehicle at a time.  As if it wasn’t bad enough that the river it spanned smelled of raw sewage, the opposite side of the bridge was notorious for being the place where soldiers and civilian truck drivers alike were pulled from their trucks and kidnapped or killed if they weren’t paying attention.
A few miles past the bridge came the right hand turn into Sadr City itself.  As soon as the turn was made, there was only a three feet of space on either side of the vehicles.  Tim was always eerily fascinated by this part of the city because he was practically in the doorways and houses of people who wanted him and his friends dead.  A left turn and the convoy was faced with sniper-friendly high rises and a median that was lined with black flags every fifty feet.  They were only a mile from their destination now.  Tim stared out of his window and looked toward the mosque looming before them on the left.  The string of lights leading to the minaret were lit, as were the lights around the dome of the mosque itself.  The lights of the mosque were usually never on. 
 Chatter about the lights came over the radio while the engine of the Humvee roared as it sped up.   Over the roar Tim heard a distinctive Pop, followed closely by two more.  As the driver swerved the truck to the right Tim realized that they were in the middle of an ambush.  As this sank in he heard Peters yell “Fuck!”
Tim quickly pulled him out of the gunner’s turret and laid him down, putting his head in the other rear passenger seat.  He was holding his left arm and his face was contorted by pain.  Tim grabbed his black aid bag and unzipped it as quickly as possible, trying his best to ignore his hands nervous shaking.
“Doc, what happened?” Peters said with a whimper, still clutching his arm.
“Move your hand so I can see,” he told Peters as calmly as possible.  “Here, hold this light with your other hand.”
Peters groaned as he gripped the flashlight in his other hand, shining the light so that Tim could see what he was dealing with.  The crimson spot on Peters upper arm was growing rapidly.  Tim grabbed his trauma shears and cut the sleeve of Peters uniform to the shoulder, exposing a pale white arm with bright red blood gushing from a neat hole the size of a thumbtack.  Tim clamped his hand over his friend’s bicep as he thought to himself. Gushing, bright red blood… medial bicep… fuck, fuck, fuck, I need a tourniquet.  His hands were already opening the velcro straps of the tourniquet as he thought about needing it.  Tim didn’t need to think anything through; without his realizing it his training took over and he moved quickly, efficiently, smoothly.  He put the tourniquet on Peters’ bicep and tightened it until the blood stopped flowing.  Peters’ face was red as he bit his lip to keep from screaming.
“Just a little bit longer, buddy.  Just a little bit longer.  You’re going to be ok man,”  Tim said as he continued bandaging the arm.  Kerlix gauze.  Tape.  Ace Bandage over the gauze.  More tape.  Check tourniquet.  No more bleeding. Mark tourniquet.
“You’re ok, Peters.  You’re ok.  Does it hurt?”
Peters nodded his head quickly, still biting his lip.  Tim grabbed the flashlight and held it with his teeth as he cut Peters’ other sleeve.  Tim dug in his large black bag again.  IV, tubing, catheter.  IV went in smoothly, despite the bouncing of the Humvee.  Tim hung the bag of saline and found his morphine.  2 milligrams, IV push.  Peters facial expression eased slightly, his mouth relaxing as the pain lessened.
“Jones, how long until the Green Zone?”  Tim asked the driver.
Peters, though shot in the arm by a bullet that nicked his brachial artery, was fine.  He needed rehab for his arm, however, and spent five of his last six months of deployment in Landstuhl, Germany.  He came back in time to help train the unit that came to replace them and to help pack up everything.  He told Tim that he was thinking about deploying again, since he had been cheated out of five whole months of “action.”  He asked Tim what he thought about volunteering to go to Afghanistan.  “Look Peters, do whatever will make you happy and help you feel like you did something.  Just don’t expect me to go with you.”  Peters took his advice and volunteered within a week of landing in the US.  Tim wished Peters all the best in his career and told him to give him a call sometime.  He never saw Peters again.
Tim got the call a week before the funeral.  The funeral was to take place on Saturday at Golden Gate National Cemetery.   The unit leadership was getting in contact with everyone from Peters’ platoon, informing them that he had been killed in action in Afghanistan while serving with the Second Infantry Division.  An IED had torn through his truck and killed him and everyone with him instantly.  No one from their unit was sure, but the word was that the only thing recovered from the Humvee was the driver’s hands, which were charred and attached to the steering wheel.
Tim hung up the phone and broke down instantly.  A crushing feeling engulfed his chest as he replayed the phone call in his head.  Peters was dead.  They killed him.  And Tim wasn’t there to do anything.  He had told him to go, but that he wasn’t going to go with him, and he died, alone and helpless.
That night Tim dreamed that he was in Afghanistan with Peters.  Peters had been shot in the chest and a pool of blood was growing underneath him.  Tim tried to run to him, tried to save him, but couldn’t reach him, no matter how fast he ran.  Peters mouthed the word Doc over and over again, his frightened eyes locked on Tim.  The crimson pool grew and Tim could get no closer to him.  Tim looked at his hands and saw they were covered with blood, despite the fact that he hadn’t reached Peters.  Blood covered his hands and his arms and eventually his whole body, but he was no where close to Peters.  He could only watch as Peters died agonizingly in front of him.
Tim woke up and puked next to his bed.
Tim pulled his car into the parking lot of the cemetery.  He got out of the car and put on the jacket of his dress blues, staring at the Combat Medical Badge that he was awarded for treating Peters in Iraq.  Tim wanted that award more than anything, but now it was worth nothing to him.  It symbolized to him that he was a failure as a medic, that he wasn’t there when his best friend needed him the most.  He made sure that his uniform was in order and walked to the gravesite.
A sickening feeling washed over Tim as he walked toward the funeral.  He had slept not four feet away from Peters for five months, had talked to him daily, had saved his life in Iraq, and he knew him only as Peters.  After countless conversations and a deployment together, he had shared the most insignificant details of his life with Peters and had learned the same details about him.  He had been best friends with him, and he didn’t even know his first name.  A million thoughts raced through his mind as he struggled to comprehend this revelation.  He didn’t even know his name.  Some friend he had been.
Tim watched as the casket draped with the American flag was slowly brought towards the grave.  He had been told that the casket was purely ceremonial, since there was really nothing to bury.  He looked around at the crowd of people gathered and recognized soldiers from his unit.  He continued to study the faces of everyone there until he noticed Peters’ parents.  They were sitting in front, his mother crying quietly, wiping her eyes every few seconds.  As he watched her cry, he felt compelled to say something to her, to tell her that her son was a great American, a true hero, and the greatest friend that he had ever known.  He wanted to hug her and make sure she knew that her son would never be forgotten.  Her son…

2 Responses to “Short Story”

  1. ko rex Says:

    Eric, I enjoyed your story. Very gritty stuff but tender too. Well done.

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