I really don’t need this shit. Another dumb-assed meeting with my shrink I’m gonna be late for. I just want to go home, pick up Jill and the kids, and get out of town for a weekend at the cottage. The sidewalk is packed with plebs heading for the subway, tourists sightseeing, drones heading to business meetings and others I’m too damn weary to try and pigeon hole. I just want to scream at them to get the fuck out of my way.
God I’m tired. The dreams came last night. They brought everything back.
I see a break in the throng ahead, deke to my right in order to cut ahead and I almost trip over him.
He’s sitting, cross-legged, with boots that don’t match. His head’s hunched over his coffee cups. One holds coffee; the other holds a pathetic collection of coins. But it’s what’s between the cups I can’t take my eyes off. It’s something I own. Except it’s not mine; but it is a Purple Heart.
A sick feeling overwhelms me.
I’m not sick because he’s an abandoned hero, thrown on life’s garbage heap by an ungrateful government. I’m not sick because of the smell rising off him in the sweltering heat, though God knows I could be. I’m not even sick because he’s making me later than I already am. I’m sick because he probably earned that Purple Heart.
I shake my head to dispel the instant replay of last night’s dreams. I have to get out of here. I thrust my hand into my pocket, drop my loose change into his cup and hurry away.
I slam into the wall erected by his words.
Only a handful of people know that nickname and only three would dare use it.
People push by me as I slowly turn.
He’s looking up at me with that quirky smile on his face. He was smiling like that, sitting next to me in the Humvee just before…
“But you’re dead,” is all I can say.
“Apparently not.” His tone is mocking.
“I saw you die. You’re dead, Mason,” I insist.
He pulls himself to his feet and limps towards me. His face paints the pain of every step.
“Yet here I am, Skippy. You didn’t see me die. You saw me thrown out of the Humvee when the device went off. You saw Joe and Gamma gunned down as they tried to return fire. But you didn’t see me die. You didn’t see any of us die. You were too busy driving away.”
“But I thought… I thought I could get help. I was trying to save you guys.”
“Sure.” He says it evenly. There’s no malice in the words but I feel the sting.
“It was nine years ago. When did you get back?”
“A while ago.”
“How come I didn’t know. No one informed me. There wasn’t anything in the newspapers. Why wasn’t there anything in the newspapers or on the TV. MIAs don’t just come back like that without a big fanfare. When exactly—”
“I’ve been back a while but the Army doesn’t know. As far as them and the rest of the world are concerned I’m just another statistic.”
He shakes his head and takes my elbow in his meaty hand. “Come with me Skippy,” he says. There’s something in his voice. It doesn’t feel right.
“I, uh… I don’t, uh… I don’t think I can. I gotta go see my shrink. It’s mandated y’know. I’m already late for—”
“You can see him later. There’s something you need to know.”
“You’re in danger. A lot of danger. It’s why I’ve been sent to get you. You need to come with me.”
His words are like a snake slithering in my gut.
“What do you mean danger?” I think I’m keeping the rising panic out of my voice but I can’t be sure.
“You need to come with me so’s I can explain it all to you. It’s a long story. It’s all connected with what happened… over there.” The hand clamped on my elbow leads me halfway down the block and into an alley. The alley stinks. It’s the day before garbage day and a couple dumpsters are overflowing. In the building on our left is a side door. He propels me through it and I’m unable to resist. “There’s somewhere in here we can talk. No interruptions. OK?” I just nod, suddenly unable to speak. He leads me down a hallway and it smells not much better than the alley outside. But it’s cool and I can feel my sweat start to evaporate. We reach a staircase and he turns me towards it. “Up,” he says.
I march up the first flight. We seem to be in an old-fashioned tenement. I didn’t know there were still buildings like this in the city. The walls are shabby but clean. The smell in the air is now redolent of disinfectant. At the top of the flight I take a U-turn and walk along a threadbare carpet in a hallway lined with brown apartment doors, each bearing brass letters: 1A, 1B, 1C… I look back. He says nothing, just indicates with a flick of his head that we need to go to a higher floor. At the end of the corridor I do another U-ie and ascend the next flight.
On each floor, I hear the sounds of life behind the apartment doors. TV voices, music, the occasional burst of laughter, a voice raised in anger and the whine of a dog.
At the top of the sixth flight, there’s no hallway. Just a grey door with a rusty iron bolt on it. I look back and he nods. Mason doesn’t look like a man with an injured leg who’s just climbed six pain-filled flights of stairs. I slide back the bolt and push open the door.
There is a shimmer of heat rising off the black roofing material.
I reminds me of the desert roads. The temperature must be a hundred up here, but sticky, not dry like the desert.
I turn to the voice.
Gamma is lounging against an air vent, his trade-mark toothpick jutting out of the side of his mouth. He’s in uniform. Joe is sitting on the roof beside him. He too has his uniform on but the pant legs are empty. I flash back to a memory of bullets raking across his thighs.
I close my open-hanging mouth. “I thought you guys were dead.”
“Uh-huh,” Gamma nods.
How the hell did all three of them survive?
“What happened back there?” I ask.
“What happened?” Joe echoes. “What happened is y’all ran off and left us to die. Left us in the none-too-gentle care of a bunch of them Taliban savages.”
I can feel Mason’s huge hand on my elbow again.
“Why’d you run, Skippy?” he growls.
“Don’t call me that.”
“Why not? You skipped out on us didn’t you?”
“I told you. I went to try and get help.”
They are all silent. I look from one the other. No one meets my eye. They just stare off into the past. The silence gets oppressive.
“You said I was in danger,” I say to Mason. “What did you mean?”
He shrugs. “We’re the danger.”
“What do you mean by that?” Even I can hear the squeak in my voice.
Joe chuckles. I turn towards him. “This here’s a court martial Skippy,” he says. “Y’all’s. The charge is cowardice in the face of the enemy.”
“But it wasn’t my f—”
“And we find you guilty,” Mason intones.
“Guilty,” Joe echoes.
“Uh-huh.” Gamma makes it unanimous. He steps forward and takes my other elbow.
I look to Joe. We were the closest. He can see the pleading in my eyes but he looks away. He straightens his back and, pushing down with his fists, he swings his body forward, plants his rump and brings his fists forward again and into contact with the ground in front of him. He repeats the motion and moves toward the edge of the roof, looking for all the world like one of those walking robots the kids have but with his trouser legs trailing behind him.
I feel the pressure of the hands on my elbows and, without being aware of walking, I follow Joe to the low parapet which encircles the roof.
“Guys,” I say.
“Step up,” Mason orders.
As one, they lift me up onto the grey concrete.
I look down and my sphincter clenches as I see the ants on the sidewalk seventy feet below my toes.
“Face the court, Skippy.” It’s the first time Gamma has spoken a complete sentence.
I turn with extreme care and look down at my comrades. Mason and Gamma are just one pace in front of me. Somehow Joe has hoisted himself up and is perched on the parapet beside my feet.
“Do y’all have anything to say before we pass sentence?” he asks.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” The words start flowing, “I wanted to get help. If I’d got out of the truck I couldn’t have done anything. I’d have been killed. I wouldn’t have been able to help you if I was dead, would I? I tried to get air support but the radio was out. I tried, I honestly did.” It’s the argument I have been having in the dream and, just like in the dream, their faces are implacable. “I did good work after that. I was brave too. And I got the Purple Heart as well. I really tried… I…”
As my words mist over, my mind clears.
What was it Mason said? ‛I’ve been back a while but the Army doesn’t know.’ So where did his Purple Heart come from? The one on the sidewalk between his cups. And I don’t remember him picking it up.
Before I can ask about it, Joe says, “The sentence is death.”
Mason and Gamma snap one pace forward. I hardly feel their hands on my chest as I topple backwards. “Look in our eyes as y’all die,” Joe shouts cheerily.
As I fall backwards, I see my toes leave the parapet in slo-mo.
I focus up to look into their eyes and see them for the last time.
But there’s no one there.