‘I’ll get it, Mom,’ Dex called out as he loped down the stairs.
‘If it’s Grandpa send him out to the backyard to keep an eye on the barbecue,’ his mother called back from the kitchen.
‘I said I’d do the barbecue.’
‘I don’t want you doing anything on your last day here.’
Dex opened the door and froze.
Dex felt his eyebrows tighten together. ‘What…why are you here?’
‘I bumped into Tom from next door. He said you were deploying tomorrow. I…’
‘You what? Decided now was a good time to show up and be a father? This is my third deployment. Where were you all the other times? High school? My first deployment, second deployment?’
‘I only just heard …you were in the army.’ His father looked down at the space between their feet.
‘What do you want?’ Dex held onto the door wondering whether to just shut it. ‘Because I don’t get it.’
‘I know I haven’t been here… It’s just, when I heard, I thought…’ his father dug in his coat pocket and brought out a small box. ‘I got this when I was in Vietnam. It’s…I kept it with me.’ He hesitantly handed it across the threshold to Dex.
Dex glanced down at it. ‘So this makes up for twenty-four years of nothing?’
‘No…no…when I heard…I just wanted you to have it. The symbols are all Vietnamese power and luck symbols.’
‘Well, that’s just great…’ Dex pushed the box back into his father’s chest. ‘I don’t need your bad juju with me.’
His mother came out of the kitchen. ‘Paul…’
‘He’s just leaving.’ Dex turned to his mother.
‘Why don’t you invite him in?’ His mother’s tone was firm.
‘Because this party is for my family.’
His father raised a tentative hand and kept his eyes to the ground. ‘Hi, Jeanie. Sorry to trouble you.’
‘Why don’t you stay for a glass of lemonade, Paul?’ She asked.
Dex glared at her.
‘No, no, I’ll go.’ His father straightened himself up a little but still didn’t look at either of them. He walked down the porch steps and got into his car.
Dex shut the door and turned to go back upstairs but his mother’s look stopped him. ‘What?’
‘You could have invited him in for a drink before the others arrive.’
‘He’s never been there for me. I don’t know him. Why would I let him in now?’
‘Because he’s your father. Because it must have been hard for him to do what he just did. Because he’s been through what you’ve been through and you can see he didn’t come out of it very well.’
Dex shook his head and frowned. ‘I don’t want to hear it. I’m nothing like him and I never will be.’
White. That was all he saw. White, blurred. Two words. Did that mean he wasn’t dead? If he could see and think words? Where am I? He tried to move but his limbs wouldn’t respond. Maybe this is what being dead is. He moved his eyes right and saw more white, different shapes: blinds. He turned his head and pain seared his brain. Where was this place? Not home. His bedroom was blue. The thought of home added a layer of confusion. He hadn’t been home in a while. Where had he been?
‘It’s nice to see your eyes open.’
He looked left toward the voice. A woman in white headed toward him. Nurse. He opened his mouth but nothing came out.
‘I’ll get the doctor. He’ll go through everything with you.’ She smiled gently. ‘You’re a fighter.’
What did that mean?
She left before he could try to speak.
The nurse reappeared with a doctor who shone a small flashlight into his eyes. ‘Welcome back, Sergeant Dexter. What’s your first name?’
‘Water,’ he whispered hoarsely. His lips felt tight.
The nurse filled a cup and let him sip it through a straw.
‘Joe.’ He answered the doctor.
‘What year is it?’
Good question. ‘2005?’
‘Good. Can you remember what happened?’
He started to shake his head but stopped. Pain pressed against his temple. They were travelling on a road. The Humvee was packed full of equipment and soldiers. The vehicle in front of them suddenly disappeared in a cloud of dust and dirt. Sound and air vanished as the explosion tried to suck them into the vacuum, cloud enveloped them like a claw clutching at prey. Then there was white and now. ‘Yes,’ was all he answered.
‘Where is your hometown?’
‘Troy, New York.’
‘How old are you?’
‘Twenty-five. I can’t move my legs.’
He caught the look between the doctor and nurse. Alarm travelled up from his bowels to his brain.
The doctor motioned to the bandage on his head. ‘You’ve suffered a traumatic brain injury, a TBI. You’ve been unconscious for two weeks. Can you remember the accident?’
‘An IED. It got the Humvee in front of us then… I don’t know. How many guys…’
‘There were seven fatalities. All four in the front vehicle and three from your vehicle.’
‘I’m it?’ Dex said as the names of his squad hit his brain at once: Garcia, Jackson, Emerson, Sanders, Cooper, Chen, Rodriguez.
‘Along with the head injury you also sustained burns and a crush injury when the vehicle in front landed on your Humvee trapping your legs. Your right leg was broken. Your left leg took most of the impact. I’m sorry, Joe, but your leg couldn’t be repaired. We had to amputate to save you from bleeding out.’
Dex stared at the doctor trying to understand. A sharp pain hit his brain and he closed his eyes against it all.
His mother leaned forward toward him and held onto his arm. He blinked and wondered if this was a dream but guessed not since she looked like her, not some ghoulish version of her, dead eyed and bloody faced which were his usual nightmares these days.
‘Hey, Mom.’ His voice was groggy and wooly from the painkillers.
She hung her head and her shoulders shook in silent sobs.
‘It’s okay, Mom.’
‘I’m sorry. I promised myself I wouldn’t do this.’ She pulled a tissue from her pocket and wiped her nose.
‘Where am I?’ He fought against the drug tide trying to pull him back under.
‘Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda. You were in Landstuhl, Germany for the first ten days. When the swelling on your brain reduced enough they moved you here. I’ve talked to the doctors; they say when you’re even better they’ll transfer you up to the veterans hospital in Albany so you’ll be close to home.’
Dex nodded trying to take in the rush of her words. He felt himself relax a little knowing that at least he was back Stateside. He wouldn’t let his mind think about home.
‘Can I get you anything? Books, magazines? Your iPod was sent back with your belongings…’
He turned his hand towards her to try and stop the stream of her words making him dizzy. ‘I’m okay.’
‘Oh, Dex…’ she gripped his hand and a big tear plopped down onto his thumb.
Garcia, Jackson, Emerson, Sanders, Cooper, Chen, Rodriguez. There was too much time to think. His squad, his friends, his brothers occupied his mind now. What could he have done differently? Why was he still here? Why didn’t anyone else make it? As soon as he saw the front vehicle hit the IED he knew Garcia, Jackson, Emerson and Sanders were gone, but Cooper, Chen and Rodriguez were with him. Why didn’t they make it? He hit the metal bars on the side of the bed in frustration. A few of the other guys on his ward glanced his way but then went back into their own worlds, mostly staring at nothing, watching TV, or trying to ignore the pain of their injuries or missing limbs.
Dex looked down at the bed sheets covering him. He hadn’t looked yet, wasn’t ready to face it. He let out a deep breath and pulled back the sheets, exposing his legs. His right leg had a metal rod and six giant screws sticking out of it, his left was bandaged at the knee with nothing but space below it. His whole body felt woozy looking at it. There it was: the stump.
‘Hurts, don’t it?’
Dex looked at the guy in the bed opposite his. He was missing his left arm from the bicep and left leg from the thigh.
‘All them nerve endings knock knockin’ on that stump wantin’ to go somewhere but your leg’s lyin’ in a ditch in Tikrit or blown to smithereens scattered in the sand. Part a me’s just blowin’ all over that shithole, getting’ in people’s eyes, irritatin’ the shit outta everyone.’ The guy laughed wildly.
Dex covered his legs and swallowed against the tingling nausea in his mouth. He leaned back into his pillow and stared at the ceiling.
Sand is everywhere. Plumes suddenly appear turning the world a hazy orange. Shapes appear from the dust cloud, soldiers with no faces march toward him but he knows it’s Garcia, Jackson, Emerson, Sanders, Cooper, Chen, and Rodriguez. Metal fragments rain down on his skin, piercing flesh, causing blooms of orange sand to explode before his eyes…
Pain jarred him awake. He reached over to rub his leg but his hand touched the mattress. He bit the inside of his cheek as he breathed through the throbbing in his leg that no longer existed. He held onto the rail of the bed until he could catch his breath.
The physio stood at the side of the bars. ‘Let’s go again. You’re getting the hang of it even with that broken leg. Not bad for eight weeks after the injury.’
Dex looked down the middle of the parallel bars, ten feet, it felt like a thousand. He looked down at his legs, one held together by metal, the other a plastic lump with a metal stick leg and a square foot, his temporary leg that was helping him learn to walk again.
‘You get the hang of this, you’ll be up in Albany within a couple of weeks, then home. Your legs are healing nicely and your new leg will be ready by the end of the week.’
Dex took a deep breath then dragged the metal leg forward one more time, sweat hitting his forehead.
The dreams that wake him in a sweat are of road patrols. He is packed into the Humvee with his squad. They are looking at each other and laughing but he can’t hear the joke. He speaks but they can’t hear him. He looks into their faces to try to get them to understand what he is saying but there is silence. He feels weighed down and slow. There is no sound. They are enveloped in the vacuum already. The flash that follows wakes him with a scream already out of his mouth. No one on his ward reacts. They all wake up that way. The adrenalin surging through him makes him hyper aware. He lies back and waits for his heartbeat to return to normal. He won’t sleep again for hours. He goes over the names of his team again, his mental rosary: Garcia, Jackson, Emerson, Sanders, Cooper, Chen, Rodriguez.
‘It’s not as hot up here as it is in Bethesda. There’s a nice breeze outside.’ His mother made small talk. ‘Does it feel good being back in New York?’
Dex shrugged as he put his stump sock on and gently put his leg into the metal leg.
‘Let’s take a walk, maybe have lunch outside.’
‘Outside the hospital?’ Dex tried to hide the anxiety that hit him every time he thought about going outside. Roads, open space, noise, baking sun. His head ached just thinking about it.
‘Just on a bench in the grounds.’ His mother put a hand on his back.
They made their way along the atrium where the white sun was streaming in through the glass roof. His head throbbed with the each step along the bright, hot light.
His mother kept him going until they reached the cooler air outside. ‘Mmm, nice breeze. We’ll find a place in the shade.’
She let him settle onto the bench. ‘I’ll get us some lunch and be back. You enjoy the fresh air.’
‘I’ll be quick.’ She disappeared back into the hospital.
Dex looked at some of the other patients, walking carefully around the courtyard on new limbs or being pushed around in wheelchairs.
‘Do you mind if I sit?’
‘My m…’ he stopped staring out at the courtyard and turned his head toward the voice. His father was standing there, hands in the colourless windbreaker that he was wearing the last time Dex saw him. He felt a flash of anger at his mother.
His father sat down on the bench and looked at the ground. ‘Your mother thought…’
‘Yeah, I bet she did.’
‘I’m sorry, Joe.’
‘It’s Dex, nobody calls me Joe.’
‘Right. I’m sorry about your leg. I know…’
Dex turned sharply toward his father, an argument on his lips. He stopped and clenched his jaw instead. He recalled the words his mother used to describe his father when he had come back from Vietnam: siege mentality, walking wounded. He was those words now. His brain was always replaying the explosion and he was back there, not here. He dragged his damaged legs around. His father never had that problem. His father was whole apart from his brain and his slow speech.
‘I know a little of what you’re feeling. I hope you’re …getting help. It gets better…over the years.’
‘It’s hard to talk about…but it helps. The veteran groups…where there are people like you…us… helps.’
‘Is that where you go?’
‘Yes…talking to civilians…they don’t know…what it’s like.’ His father looked around at the other patients.
‘No, they don’t.’
‘It would have been hard when you were younger… to tell you things I’ve seen. You have to…be there to understand.’
Dex nodded again. What could he say? He knew now. All the things he wondered about his father while growing up, all the wanting to know what happened, now it was all inside him. Garcia, Jackson, Emerson, Sanders, Cooper, Chen, Rodriguez would always be inside him now.
His father’s hand moved out of his pocket and he set down the soapstone box that he had tried to give Dex before he left, ‘You should have this… you deserve it. The carving on the top is a phoenix. Big Vietnamese symbol.’
Dex glanced at the top of the box and recognized the phoenix as it expanded its newly formed wings and ascended away from the plumes of flame and smoke surrounding it. He felt his lungs constrict trying not to go back there. Garcia, Jackson, Emerson, Sanders, Cooper, Chen, Rodriguez.