It was a perfect day. John sat in a lounge chair on the deck and watched the clouds roll past the trees. There was a bang behind him. John tensed, but it was just the screen door. Kelly handed him a cold beer. He felt the beads of water in the palm of his hand and wiped them across his face.
The trees rustled to life and the breeze brushed against his cheek like the delicate touch of a feather. He sniffed the air. Someone was grilling somewhere. Maybe later, they’d all have a cookout. Joey and Michaela were playing on the jungle gym; for once he didn’t have to break up a fight. Kelly took the seat next to his and lay a book in her lap. She smiled over at John and offered him a hand.
“Everything okay?” she asked.
He took the hand. “I’m fine,” he said. John held it against his chest and let himself fall back into the chair.
“We’re losing him.”
John sat up. “Did you hear that?” he asked.
Kelly looked up from her book. “Hear what?”
“I heard someone,” he said. The wind was picking up. John glanced around. It didn’t look like rain. The sun was – if anything – brighter than before. John reached for his sunglasses.
“Lieutenant, can you hear me?”
The grill smell was strong. He could almost taste it. Bitter and metallic. There were shadows in the sky. No, that wasn’t it. He was lying down.
“He’s conscious,” said someone, a woman. John tried to focus, tried to turn his head, something. Nothing seemed to work. He felt like he was packed in foam.
“Don’t try to move, Lieutenant,” said a voice. It was the first person.
“What’s going on?” asked John. It sounded like “huzz” to his ears, but the people moving in and out of his vision seemed to understand.
“Your humvee hit a roadside bomb,” said the doctor. “Try to rest. You’ll need your strength.”
John tried to swallow, but his mouth was dry and he couldn’t seem to close it. He could hear machines in the background and snippets of conversations. It sounded like a foreign language. John made out a ceiling above him and part of a curtain.
Later, someone reached in and put something on his face. John assumed it was a bandage. There was no pain, just a vague itchy sensation. He smelled old meat, sweet and musty. He knew that smell from Fallujah, when the air strikes cleared the streets of Republican Guard. Turned them to sheik-ka-bob, they’d laugh.
He laughed at the irony. It came out like a rusty croak.
Later, he was in a bed in a hospital. The ceiling was different, painted white. Someone adjusted the bed. John saw bandages. Later, he saw his left leg. It was red and pink and split to the shin bone which was blackened. The nurse cut away some of the meat and put it in a bowl. It didn’t hurt, but John looked away anyway. The doctor came into view.
“John,” he said. The doctor’s name was FERGUSON. “I’m going to be honest with you. The only way you’re going to make it is if you want to make it.” John made an agree sound. He rode out with a couple of PFC’s in a med evac convoy. JENSEN misplaced a leg somewhere on the road to Baghdad and the only things holding FARLEY together were his clothes. But FARLEY had a girl back in Missoula, Montana, of all places. John met up with them stateside about a year later. They were getting married next spring.
He wrote a letter to JENSEN’s parents.
“Rest,” said Kelly. John felt her brush his cheek. He rested.
Later, he noticed more bags above his head.
“Antibiotics,” he heard Dr. Ferguson say. “You have a staph infection. It’s a setback, but you have a good chance.” Kelly said nothing.
“You just need to fight,” said the doctor.
There were more nurses now. John studied each one as they hovered into his field of view. Kelly wasn’t among them. He asked about her – tried to anyway – but received only silence.
Later, the room was filled with machines. John thought he should be touched by all the attention, joke about the tax money put to good use, but – deep down – he didn’t care. He just wanted to see Kelly.
Later, she was there. Kelly took him home and got him a beer. They sat on the deck and watched the kids play, the trees shivering in the breeze and the clouds as they filed past in slow motion precision. The sun was setting; everything was getting dark. John looked over at Kelly. She smiled.
“Everything okay?” she asked.
He took her hand and lay back. “I’m fine,” he said.