As usual, the hajis didn’t cooperate (Dylan)
When we finished breakfast, Alex said, “I think I want to let you guys go off and play together, and I’m going to pick my sister up.”
I looked at her, curiously, and said, “You’re sure?”
She smiled and leaned close, then said, “Go have fun with Sherman. You guys haven’t seen each other in a long time. Besides, I want to talk with Carrie. Girl stuff.” She winked at me.
As always, her proximity took my breath away. We paid our bill and headed out. In front of the restaurant, she turned and grabbed me in a deep hug, then whispered in my ear, “I’ve got plans for you tonight, Studmaster. You might want to think about getting some rest.”
Jesus Christ. My body instantly responded to her, no matter she was using that hideously embarrassing nickname. She kissed me, then waved and started walking toward her dorm.
I just stood there, watching her walk away, until Sherman said, “You still awake over there, Paris?”
I shook my head, a grin forming on my face, and said, “I don’t know. I might be dreaming.”
He gave a short laugh. “I’m happy you got back together with her, man. You’re a very lucky guy.”
“Yeah, more than you know.”
So we hung out, playing on the XBox back at my place, talking occasionally about the other guys from our platoon.
I’d been in the hospital when they held the memorial for Kowalski and Roberts, out there in the middle of the Afghan boonies. Sherman told me a little bit about it, but I’d already seen pictures, and read emails from some of the guys.
“How’s Sergeant Colton?” I asked.
“He’s getting out,” Sherman said.
“You’re shitting me. I figured him for a lifer.”
Sherman shook his head. “No. He’s all done. Three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan was two times too many, he started saying, not long after you got hit.”
“He was kind of like a dad to me, you know.”
“You should call him sometime, let him know how you’re doing.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I will.”
“So what’s up with this party?”
I shrugged. “Some friend of Alex’s.”
“There going to be girls there?”
I chuckled. “Yeah, probably. It’s going to be all college kids. Some grad students I think. I don’t really know many of her friends.”
“You want to hear something crazy?”
“I’m hoping it’s not going to be like… I don’t know, the movie college parties you see. Big crowd, lots of people drunk. I don’t think I could take a crowd. I wanted to chew my own arm off in the airport.”
I snickered. “Know what you mean, man. I don’t do crowds any more. But I don’t think so, this is mostly an older crowd than that, from what Alex said.”
“You seem happy, man. Happier than I’ve ever seen you.”
I thought about that for a minute, then said, “I am, dude. School is good, and Alex… well… shit, I got a second chance, you know? That’s a big deal.”
He nodded, then yawned. “Listen, I’m gonna get some Zs then, before the party. You mind?”
“Sure, that’s fine. Crash in my room, let me just get my laptop.”
“All right. You better have clean sheets, you fucker.”
“You better not have brought back any funky Afghan parasites.”
So I got my laptop, and he went to sleep, and I popped online for a little while, then did some homework.
And then I did something different.
See, when I was in the hospital, still trying to figure out if I was going to live or die, or if they were going to cut off my leg, or if I was going to end up addicted to the morphine they’d given me, the last thing I was ready to do was read her emails. Because, well: failure. I’m no stranger to it. Alex was everything to me. But she also had a future. And I didn’t really. All I had was some serious fucking brain damage, a leg that might go into sepsis and be cut off any moment, and the last thing I was going to do was drag myself back into her life and fuck things up for her too. Like I fucked up everything.
So I buried her emails. Stuck them in a folder and never looked at them.
Now, with Sherman sleeping in my room, and Alex off to go get ready to pick up her sister Carrie, I finally decided it was time.
I’ll admit, I had some anxiety about this. I knew I’d hurt her. I hurt her bad. What was she going to say?
I was about to find out, and that scared the hell out of me.
February 10, 2012; 01:45 AM
I’m sorry about what happened. I’m a little drunk, and feeling
down in the dumps, and just frustrated as hell about our
sometimes crazy long distance relationship. Forgive me?
I know I upset you, and I’m so sorry. If you can get to skype,
I’ll be online in the morning and tomorrow night. Or email me.
Please don’t forget I love you very much!
Hugs and kisses!
I stared at the email, feeling… staggered. She must have written the email minutes after I disconnected our Skype session. I was busy disabling my Facebook account right then.
February 10, 2012; 09:45 AM
I tried to message you on Facebook, but couldn’t find you. Really?
Did you defriend me? Talk to me, Dylan, what’s going on? Please?
Reading the second email, I found myself breathing heavily. It was written 10 hours after I’d hung up on her. Right after I shot up my old laptop, Sergeant Colton had dragged me in to see the Old Man. Captain Wilson was a fair guy, I never had anything bad to say about him. He, on the other hand, had plenty bad to say about me, and pretty much got all of it off his chest right then and there. I gave the only answer there was: I had no excuse.
After he dressed me down, he sent me outside to wait, and he and Sergeant Colton talked. Then they called me back in.
“Paris, personally I’m of the view that we should court-martial your ass. But Sergeant Colton here says you aren’t completely worthless, and reluctant as I am, I have to agree. So we’ve agreed on a suitable non-judicial punishment. Are you ready to hear the terms?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied, still numb and in shock from seeing the guy—Joel— in her room.
“This is a company grade Article 15. The maximum sentence for a company grade Article 15 is reduction in grade by one rank, forfeiture of 7 days pay, plus 14 days extra duty and restriction. Due to the seriousness of what you did, I intend to levy the maximum sentence. You’ll be reduced in grade to Private First Class. Restriction doesn’t mean a hell of a lot here, but the 14 days extra duty will. Do you understand the terms of the punishment?”
“You’re entitled to demand a court-martial instead of this nonjudicial punishment. Do you wish to demand a court-martial?”
I shook my head, and said, “No, sir. I did what I did. I’m guilty, sir.”
He nodded. “All right. We’ll take care of the paperwork later. For now, to underscore the seriousness of this, I’m changing up the rotation. Your squad is out on patrol tonight.”
Oh, God, I thought. The guys were going to hate me. We just got back from a patrol that morning. Kowalski got killed out there, and everyone was reeling. The vision of him throwing himself on the grenade to save that little girl was burned on my eyes.
“Is there a problem, Paris?”
I looked at the floor. “Sir, if I demand a court-martial, will the other guys still get punished? It’s not their fault. And… after Kowalski… everybody’s pretty screwed up.”
“Yes. The rotation change stands. I’ve already discussed this with Sergeant Colton. Do we agree, Sergeant, that if your squad was being properly supervised, then your soldiers wouldn’t be out shooting up electronics on the edge of the base camp?”
Colton winced. “Yes, sir.”
And that was it. That night we headed out on patrol
A patrol we wouldn’t have gone on, if I hadn’t been such a fucking idiot. But, as I’ve pointed out now, I’ve got a history of fucking things up.
She sent another email. I guess about an hour after we were out in the boonies on the road, on a night patrol into the mountains, a night patrol which would last until well into the next day. Roberts and I rode together in one humvee, and he was pretty good natured about it, ribbing me about being busted back to PFC.
February 10, 2012; 11:32 PM
I don’t understand the silence. I don’t understand what I did that was so wrong. I’m hoping you’re just too busy to get my messages. I’m hoping you aren’t ignoring me deliberately, because it kind of hurts, Dylan. Don’t you think I deserve some kind of explanation?
I do. I’d give just about anything to go back and change it now. I’d give anything in the world to not have hurt her like that. And I’d literally give my life to be able to go back and erase the stupid, idiotic actions that brought down a punishment on my entire platoon.
The patrol lasted all night. We were basically just a moving target, driving around, in a crazy attempt to draw fire from the Taliban insurgents that still operated heavily in our area. But as usual, the hajis didn’t cooperate. It was a quiet night, very quiet. By sunrise, we were all tired and ready for some sack time. Sergeant Colton ordered the column to head back to base. We passed through a tiny village, and the guy who ran the road-side shop waved us down. The patrol came to a stop, and Roberts and I passed the time scanning the village for bad guys.
This was just weird. We never went out on patrol without getting shot at. It just didn’t happen. I mean, the villagers here were pretty friendly … at least they didn’t try to kill us often. But the bad guys were always live in this area. I was tense, and I knew Roberts was too. We all were.
We were tied up in the village for about forty five minutes. And during that forty five minutes, the bad guys were out there. They were setting up a roadside bomb and ambush on the direct route between the village and our base camp.
Sometimes I have dreams about starting out for the base camp from that shit village. I can tell what’s going to happen, I know it’s coming, and I want to just scream at Sergeant Colton, at Sherman or Roberts or even myself, and tell them we’re about to get hammered. I try to stop it from happening, but no matter what happens we keep going down that road. We keep going down the road until the explosion hits, and my closest friend in the world is shredded, his blood literally coating the inside of the smoking humvee, my own leg shredded by shrapnel, then the bullets flying as I fell out of the humvee onto the ground. I don’t remember if I screamed, I don’t remember if I just sat there, hoping to die because it was my fault we’d been hit, it was my fault we were out on that patrol in the first place.
I wanted to die. Because if it hadn’t been for me and my stupid impulsive moment, Roberts would be alive. If it hadn’t been for me, his parents back in Alabama wouldn’t have had to plant their only son six feet under the ground because of some stupid war in a country halfway around the world.
It was my fault.
Alex wrote to me, again and again. Every day for the first week and a half or so, eleven daily emails that she sent to me while I was getting in trouble, getting my best friend killed, then being transported to Baghram and later Germany in a mostly unconscious haze with a shredded leg.
By the tenth day she’d lost whatever patience she night have had.
February 20, 2012; 04:20 AM
I’ve been up all night crying, and Kelly has told me its time to let you go. You’re breaking my heart. Of all the things I’ve ever believed about you, I never believed cruelty was part of who you are. But I was wrong. You are cruel and heartless. If only you had any idea what you’ve done. I’m done crying over you. I’m done wondering where you are. Every day I’ve obsessively checked newspapers, looking for news that you’ve been hurt. I’ve checked casualty lists, terrified that you were killed
over there. I’ve done everything I can.
I hope you find someway to live with yourself. But don’t expect me to forgive you.
Oh, Alex. I didn’t. I don’t. How could I expect her to forgive me, when I can’t forgive myself? I didn’t fucking deserve forgiveness. I broke her heart. I killed Roberts, and broke his parents. When I went to see them this summer, I couldn’t tell them the truth. I told them what a great friend he was, about all the good times we had together. I told them all the funny stories. I shared a beer with his dad, and we cried together. But I didn’t tell them the truth. I didn’t tell them that it was my fault their son was dead.