Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Road

*For Greg and Cam

"Fuck, it hurts." Truth be told, Roberts can't feel his leg at all. He's afraid to look, but his brain knows something is wrong.

Pulling Roberts by the drag-handle on Roberts' web-gear, Mullens screams, "Shut up. We're almost there."

The howitzer shell had hit too close. Concussion-propelled shrapnel tore its way through anything unlucky enough to be in the way. Mullens was covered in the blood of his best friend, who had shoved Mullens behind him. There is no time for sentiment. Nobody's around to care, anyway.


Roberts wakes up from the nightmare. It is a memory that will not die. He turns to look at the empty pillow beside, the result of a woman's promise to leave if he didn't get out of the Army. Even in spite of his injury, she refused to come back. Refused, in fact, to even look at him. Couldn't.


An errant bounce against a boulder forces to Roberts to witness what he's feared. His left leg is no longer attached to his body. Nowhere to be seen. A hasty tourniquet of five-fifty cord keeps him alive. Two, actually. His right leg would be missing, too, were it not for a stubborn clump of tissue. "Oh, no."

Had Mullens been paying attention, he would have noticed the complete lack of emotion in Roberts' despair. But he's too busy trying to pull Roberts away from the impact area. Blood- and tear-obscured dust is not making their escape any easier.


Another nightmare and another glance at an empty pillow. Only after having stared into the face of war has he realized the value of the body of woman. Too late. Exhausted from his dream, Roberts doesn't even try to get out of bed, preferring simply to pretend there's comfort to be found in sleeping in his own urine.


Roberts knows he's going to lose the other leg soon enough. The thought of having no legs finds life among the surrounding dead. "Leave me here, Mullens. Just leave me here. Please, just leave me here."

"Shut the fuck up."


He's a coward and he hates himself for it. The taste of gunmetal is, by now, a familiar friend. But he can't sum up the courage to pull the trigger. An old soldier of his happened to stop by the one time he thought he could do it, but the asshole took Roberts' gun. Good thing the other pistol was stored under a floorboard. If it were on top of the closet like the last one was, he didn't think he'd have the capability of getting it down. It's odd to see all of one's higher shelves completely empty.


Mortar blasts continue to mop up the area and it is sheer fortune that none have hit Mullens and Roberts. In Roberts' view, it is sheer misfortune. He wants to die and makes this clear to Mullens. But Mullens isn't listening. Instead, he's counting aloud... over and over again from one to thirteen.

Roberts will never learn that Mullens was counting the members of their patrol killed by the howitzer shell.


The doorbell rings, startling Roberts awake from an afternoon nap. Though there's no discernible difference in time between his morning, afternoon, or evening naps anymore. To him, there's no discernible difference in being dead or alive.

He crawls to his motorized wheelchair - parked too far from the bed in a drunken stupor, no doubt - and guides it to the front door. He's long since quit smelling the shit and piss he's allowed to dry to his skin.

Opening the door, he's surprised to see a woman.


Roberts can hear screams in English and the sound of gunfire from American weapons. Still hidden from view in the kicked up dirt and the craggy terrain, he can't tell how far they are from rescue. All he can see is the amount of soil collecting in the open wound of his right leg. For a brief moment, Roberts imagines an ice cream cone. Then he imagines flying. And all goes dark and silent.


This woman finds it hard to look at Roberts, just like all the others. She quickly forces herself to do so, saying a name that fails to register. After a few minutes of one-way conversation, the woman gives up. Before she leaves, she says something Roberts does hear.

"My husband died saving you. I hope you don't waste my life by killing yourself."

Roberts slams the door. What would she know?


When he comes to, Roberts can't hear a thing and his vision is blurred by blood. His face is on fire. So is Mullens' body. Thoughts of self-pity mercifully disappear and Roberts pulls himself to Mullens. When they're finally found, the sight of a faceless, legless man futilely applying CPR to his dead friend makes more than one soldier throw up.


It's night, but bereft of nightmare. Instead, a dream like those Roberts once had as a younger man with everything to look forward to. He's driving his brother's hand-me-down 80s Camaro, nothing but open road in front of him. Eventually reaching the secluded canyon where Roberts had his first drink, his first kiss, his first fist-fight, and his first fuck, he pulls the car over and turns off the engine.

A campfire roars and surrounding it are fourteen men he'd grown to love in the deserts of a faraway land. Each raises a beer to Roberts' arrival, smiling their warm smiles. Though only a dream, Roberts' return smile is his first since the battle. He opens the door, intent on joining them.

Mullens' smile turns into a frown. "Get the fuck back in the car. You ain't dead yet."


Converted to be driven without the use of legs, Roberts' Camaro sits idling on a cliff-side overlooking his favorite city. Headlights on, windows open, the radio blasting a popular tune, a letter of apology to Mullens' wife half-written on the passenger seat. Lying broken at the bottom of the cliff, a gun once loaded with a single bullet.

Roberts is asleep at the wheel, dreaming of the road ahead. Though it will be a journey more difficult than any he's ever faced, the weight of fourteen men will help carry him along. Perhaps he should walk.


Baino said...

You know I love this one. It has everything, makes me feel angry at him for his self pity through to total empathy for his situation. Damn you . . better have a decent muse! Merlot and Coffe! FTS

RA said...

Superb! It triggered next to every emotion I have.... :)

Brian Miller said...

tight write was when you got to the part where the wife came that you got me...glad he is taking a second lease on life...

Yodood said...

I'm blown away, Jeff. This is the most powerful example of the infinite reasons to eliminate war as a national policy I've ever read. This is about a horror much more profound than the gore in which you drenched it and which would have been gratuitously excessive in any less essential writing, but perfect balance between mind, body and spirit.

Eric S. said...

I'm stunned, the emotion withing these words goes unspoken, can't be in respect for those men. Even fictional characters as this deserve it so.

I believe you have captured the torment of the survivor, although I would never really know myself. This piece makes it easier to see that though.

Tom said...

there's a lot of this going around, and most of us are content to let it flow over and around us. And yet we let the loss or disapearance of one person dominate the news for months or even years...our priorities are whack. nice writing, keep it on the front burner, man

Betsy said...

Very nicely written...I like the layers of emotion going on. And as Eric says, you captured the torment of the survivor perfectly!

hvninhell said...

Good, an uplifting ending!

PattiKen said...

Pulling himself up out of the depths of despair after an experience like that must take as much courage as getting into it in the first place did. You captured that despair well.

Bill G. said...

Too much merlot on an empty stomach. Eat something before bedtime. Good story and memory.

Liza Ursu said...

"It's night, but bereft of nightmare."

Love that ending sentence.

moondustwriter said...

These guys live in a daily hell. Jeff you put sincerity and understanding to this piece. Don't know if you have been there but I have had enough friends in this situation to know that they would appreciate your putting words to their unspoken pain.

The Crusty Crone said...

wow... a whole movie neatly penned into a magpie tale. Excellent writing. Now where's the damn tissue. Sniff.

Helen said...

Overwhelming, powerful, hard to read in places ... but oh, so well done!

Tina said...

Powerful. Tightly written. You can feel his grief, and terror, and indecision. Like how you ended it.

Tess Kincaid said...

Wow, that last scene is so gripping. Well done, my friend. Powerful bit of writing.

Stafford Ray said...

Too good not to be from experience. The semi insanity of a raumatised mind. Brilliant.

Stafford Ray said...

(corrected) Too good not to be from experience. The semi insanity of a traumatised mind. Brilliant.

Bitsy said...

A bit too easy for me with the ending. What was "I hope you don't waste my life by killing yourself." supposed to be about?

I would have liked more discussion of the losses. It's too much like every other physical loss story. Not enough of dealing with the psychological pain of loss.

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