Just make the delivery and get out of there.

The sergeant had spent two days in barracks waiting for the urn with the ashes of the cremated body in it to arrive. It wasn’t his regiment’s home base, so there wasn’t a face he knew in it. The package arrived and he rang the parent’s home to arrange a time he could make the delivery.

On the day, he’s up at the dawn and works hard for a few hours to get himself ready. Ironing his uniform and polishing belt, buckles and boots. It’s time. One final check in the mirror – his uniform is immaculate. It wasn’t to be a full military funeral, but anyway he’d carefully folded a flag into a triangle to give them. He’d stayed in the hospital long enough to ensure Cotton’s wish that his body would be cremated was obeyed and then he limped out of there against doctor’s orders. There were still some holes in him but they were on the mend and he’d volunteered for this duty.

Just make the delivery and get out of there.

He takes the barracks shuttle bus to central station where he can get a cab to the parent’s home. He’s in the line at the cab rank, shuffling along with the rest as the cabs swerve in and out, nibbling off whoever is at the front of the line like grazing sharks. His threat radar goes off. There’s a movement to his right. Two punk kids heading in his direction. Dressed in black, spiky hair and carefully distressed designer clothes. Wanna be anti-war protesters or something out to tease a soldier boy to make him lose his rag before running away laughing.

He imagines stamping on the face of the leading one with his shiny hard jump boots until the face is stamped flat on the concrete, a rough circular mess about a yard across, one squashed eye here, one massively distended but terrified rolling eye over there, a flattened nose in profile like one of those abstract paintings rich arseholes pay millions for. Right now, it’d all feel so good.

He smiles, looking at lead boy. It’s one of those slow smiles where the top teeth show and the eyes aren’t smiling at all, and it isn’t a smile. It’s the one last thing a cornered and petrified creature sees on the face of an apex predator as it closes in to disembowel them.

Lead boy does a careful u-turn back to the station concourse trailed by his flunky whining about what had happened to their plan. He knows just how close he’d come to something a lot more serious than a bit of fun pissing off a soldier.

The cab stops in front of the house. It’s well to do suburbia, scrupulously well maintained and not a blade of grass would dare to be out of place or it’d get its head chopped off straight away. He looks at the meter, sorts out a note and pokes it through the hole in the armour plastic screen that protects cabbies from their fares these days.

The cabbie doesn’t make any move to accept it. Instead, he asks if what’s in that package on the seat is what he thinks it is. There’s no reply from the back but he continues on anyway. I once pulled that duty you’re doing – there’s no charge. Use it to have a drink afterwards.

The part he was dreading was the long walk up the path to the front door and pressing the bell, but it was opening before he got there. They’d been watching and waiting. It knocked him off the script he’d been loosely running in his head. He gave his name to the elderly gentleman who’d opened the door. They knew already they’d lost their son, but bringing his ashes home would still be a hard thing for them.

The old man introduced himself as Cotton’s father and waved him into the house. The hallway was white and whatever wasn’t white, was off white, and everything else was just plain scared shitless white, even the carpet. Laid on it was one of those roll out transparent plastic things prissy people used to put down to protect the carpet. It was pristine. He knelt down to unlace his boots but the old man put his hand on his shoulder and told him he was okay. He waved him into the interior to a living room at the end of the long corridor.

Everything in it was more shades of white and perfectly arranged. Everything. There was nothing in it that wasn’t compulsively aligned with the nearest parallel edge. In it sat an elderly woman in a plush armchair, the mother. The father introduced him to her but she just glared at him, not saying a word.

It all somehow fitted. Cotton had told him he’d once brought a friend home. His friend had one of those ugly black warts on his temple and his mother couldn’t bring herself to look him in the face. She could barely stay in the same room as him. Her obsessive tendencies extended to anyone who had a visible physical imperfection. He could see she could barely suppress her vomit reflex. He’d bundled his friend out of the house quick.

He handed over the package.

I put a flag in it Sir, he told the father.

That was good of you. Wasn’t it Margaret? he said turning to her, but she just glared.

The father sat him down, made sure he didn’t want a drink or anything, and made some smalltalk. He mainly wanted to know if he’d known him, which the sergeant said he hadn’t. Same battalion, different companies. It was awkward as hell. All the sergeant wanted to do was be out of there.

The mother came alive, smashing straight through into the middle of the smalltalk.

Why did you come home and my baby didn’t? she demanded.

She was enraged. On the edge of hysteria. The sergeant had seen it before. It was a stage in the grieving process but knowing that and seeing the grief that lay behind it were two different things. The husband quickly got between them as if to physically shield him from her attacking him. The sergeant looked up at him and the father could see all he wanted to be was out of there.

Thank you again for bringing his ashes home, he said hurriedly, I’m sure you’ve lots of other important things to be getting on with. Let me show you out.

He waved an arm at the hallway and the sergeant stood up and walked down the corridor with the old man following behind.

The last thing he heard in the house was a screeched – Tell me why? Why? – echoing up the corridor behind them, before the deep racking sobs began. Dear God, get me out of this fucking place.

The father walked him to the front door, like a courtier escorting a peasant out of the royal presence. They stopped there briefly so he could call a cab for the sergeant. He opened the door for him and the sergeant stepped through and turned to say farewell, but the father had followed him out and closed the door quietly behind himself.

He wanted to talk to the sergeant about something, but was searching for words.

She’s not usually that bad. It’s her way of handling things she can’t cope with. I’m sorry.

Of course Sir. I understand. Totally.

He looked at the sergeant with a diffident smile. Would it be possible for you to stop calling me sir?

Of course … Mr Stapleton.

This was going much too far off script he thought. Hold it together. The father started to speak and he just listened.

Bradley, called Braddock at his mother’s insistence – an upward glance at the sergeant to make sure he wasn’t being too pathetic – was what they call a child of old age, our old age. His college friends used to think I was his grandfather when he brought one home.

He smiled at some memory, obviously a fond one, and the sergeant wanted to be anywhere else but here.

We’d given up after fifteen years of trying and had a very settled lifestyle by then. Tidy and regimented. She was always a bit that way, but not being able to have a child kind of made her worse. She was in her early forties and all her sisters had nearly grown children by then. Young children aren’t tidy and Bradley was no exception. He led her a merry chase at times, but in her heart she always did love him.

The sergeant thought about the names. Braddock was his mother’s prince, the perfect heir to a winter kingdom that didn’t exist, Bradley was the child an elderly father doted on and Brad was what he was occasionally called by his fellow officers, but that wasn’t his real name, his war name. The men called him Cotton which was short for Cotton Eye Joe, a name he’d picked up because of his mid-west hick accent that reminded them of the Rednex’s song of the same name.

The silly name reflected how much they liked and trusted him. He was one of the few officers who didn’t communicate to his men exclusively through his NCOs, and he could do that without losing the necessary respect for his rank. The sergeant had been given the war name Boost many years before, because of his talent for circumventing the logistics supply chain among other things.

The father paused to give him a measured look. You knew him, didn’t you?

Boost thought he’d have to be careful with this man. He’s not the beaten cur he’d at first taken him for. He’s working things out. Be careful. Don’t hurt him.

Yes, I did, he admitted. We served together. He was a fine leader, and there’s not a man who served under him who’d tell you any different. His loss is a blow to us all.

And it was of gunshot wounds?

Yes Sir.

You’re a terrible liar sergeant, but I do appreciate you trying. I open every piece of mail that comes into this house to shield her. I let his letters to her go through, but all the medical reports never got past me. It was one of those IEDs and he was a multiple amputee. Our boy with no arms and legs. I sat on that stuff. Was it you who wrote his letters home for him?

The sergeant stayed silent.

He had some ups and downs, but he seemed to be progressing. What happened? Didn’t he want to get home? Because of us?

No Sir, he was looking forward to it and fought so hard, very hard, but in the end his body gave up but never his heart. If one thing’s for sure on God’s good green Earth, he wanted to see both of you again.

How close were you?

Boost, running out of those lies of omission the parish priest had warned all of them about as children, gave up the struggle. Whatever he wanted to know, he’d tell the truth. No more lies. The last best hope was that he just wouldn’t ask.

We were brothers.

The old man fixed him with those sad blue eyes and stared at him long and hard. Somehow, for a fleeting moment, an iron had crept into those eyes and Boost resolutely returned that stare without looking away for what seemed ages.

The old man chose not to ask the question that was on his mind.

Thank you. And after a long pause, and as if an afterthought added the formality – and thank you for your service sergeant.

Was that double thank you with that slightly too long pause between the two his way of telling Boost he suspected? He knew, he fucking well knew, but the parting forms and rituals of loss had to be observed. They’re all that’ll keep you going in some situations.

That seemed to be that, so the sergeant shook his hand in farewell, expressed his condolences once again, and walked down the path to wait for the arrival of the cab.

Cotton was right. Her boy, armless and legless, would have killed her and slowly broken the heart of a gentle old man whose only fault was to love his darling boy much too dearly. It would have destroyed what little was left of it as a home. He didn’t know which to pity the most; the shattered ice queen in her palace of white or the poor old bastard.

He stood there and remembered. They had served together and both ended up in hospital beds beside each other. They try to place same unit patients together for obvious reasons. When someone’s hurt as badly as the boss was, there’s nothing much you can do but talk.

Their backgrounds couldn’t have been more different. Boost came from one of those big easy-rolling Catholic families that always managed to somehow stay above the poverty line, but only just. There wasn’t much room in it for indulging anyone of a sensitive nature who couldn’t handle the rough and tumble of it. By contrast, Cotton was an only child in a family whose interior tensions were like a violin whose strings had been massively over-tightened. At any moment, the whole bloody thing could simply explode without warning. Boost couldn’t imagine growing up in that family. How could someone like Cotton have come out of an environment like that?

Despite the blunt sergeant persona he projected, he was perceptive and well read, especially in the broad literature of his chosen profession. Having met the family, he realised it was Cotton as a child protecting a father he loved from an overbearing mother he also loved but who was incapable of expressing her feelings. Little Bradley had grown up looking out for his father, just as he’d done for his men.

A book he’d read on the psychology of war had come up with a fact that’d stuck, because it did ring a certain bell for him. Something like seventy-five percent of medal winners had a childhood history of taking care of and being responsible for others; either a badly functioning parent or neglected younger siblings. Risking their lives to protect their brothers in arms when they were in danger wasn’t a long step away from that.

It explained a lot about the boss. From the first day he met him as a cherry Lieutenant he thought he knows nothing except what they pumped into him at the Point, which is fuck all use out here, but he cares. If I can keep him alive just long enough to teach him something, he’ll work out. It turned out that way.

He matured into a confident leader who knew when to stay back and manage a fire fight, but also how to lead from the front when it was important to break the paralysis and get them up and moving forward. More than that, they became friends, comrades in arms, brothers, a closeness everybody else in the world was outside of unless they’d been there and risked their lives in the thick of it for their brothers.

There was a room on their floor called the smoker’s room by every soldier in the ward who smoked, and as they were only there because they were combat troops, nearly every swinging dick of them smoked. They practically ate the fucking things. There was a strict no smoking rule in the hospital, but separating these sometimes highly volatile men fresh from a combat zone from the only comfort some of them had left could cause more problems than just turning a blind eye.

They couldn’t give an Arkansas side-ways fuck about hospital rules, so disused utility rooms were stocked out with old tables and chairs with empty tin cans for ashtrays and they didn’t exist officially. Usual shitty VA facility.

He’d once seen a nurse on the night shift give a soldier a smoke from a pack she always kept in a pocket of her smock just for them. He was a C1/C2 spinal fracture, dead from the neck down. His dancing days were surely done. For those poor bastards, the smoking room was a movable concept made possible by a few kind hearts. The window beside them was wide open to suck the evidence out into the night. She lit it for him and sat on the side of the bed and put it between his lips. He’d take a long drag and she’d take it away and wait patiently until he was ready for another hit.

A smoke alarm went off in the ceiling and one of the walking wounded got up and knocked it off the ceiling with his crutch, opened it up and tossed the battery. He looked at the nurse and muttered, you’re good to go sister, and went back to bed while she went back to feeding the soldier the rest of the cigarette.

He got back from the smoking room to find Cotton with blood coming out of his mouth. Not a massive bleed but enough to make him reach for the assistance button to get a nurse.

Don’t do that.

Boost froze halfway to the red button, looking at him and thinking what’s going on here.

Please?

Boost sat on the side of the bed and looked at him – Talk to me, tell me what’s going on. What are you up to?

I tried to bite through my tongue but I just couldn’t do it. Not even that. What a useless fuck I’ve become.

Boost didn’t have a reply to that.

You know I lied to her in the letters. If I go back, it’d kill her on the spot and it’d break my old man’s heart. Sure, he’d feed me and wipe my arse for the next twenty years, but he hasn’t much heart left. It’d crush him. It’d be better for both of them if it was quick and clean.

And I surely don’t want to live like this, not for the rest of my life. I need the old reliable Rooster Booster just one more time. Do it for me, Boost. Please.

Boost stayed determinedly silent.

Don’t make me beg you, you fucking Irish hillbilly. Please. Pretend I’m a Methodist or something.

There was nothing but agony in his eyes.

The cabbie was right after all, he’d be needing that drink. God forgive me for this day’s work.

©Pointman

Blood brothers.

Click here for other Pointman fiction.

Comments
14 Responses to “Just make the delivery and get out of there.”
  1. hunterson7 says:

    Wow.
    Thank you.

    Like

  2. rapscallion says:

    Strangely, You would only do what Boost did to a loved one.True comradeship never states it, but it is always there.

    Something I’m sure you know from experience Pointman

    Like

  3. Margie says:

    A cruel and violent story beautifully written. I’m a committed Christian and all I se is kindness and love in it by everybody even a cabbie.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. keisley says:

    There’s so much to think about in this story. Everyone in it is bending or breaking rules, even thou shalt not kill. I can’t condemn any of them.

    Like

    • PaleoSapiens says:

      More information for a common misconception, no disrespect intended. The original Hebrew word, in this case, for “…kill…,” is “RASAH” (or variations of it) which equals *”kill with evil intent.”*

      Thus, the primary transliteration of “rasah,” in context, is “…do not MURDER…” A subtle and significant distinction…

      This bit of research was done several years ago in a public library (“Anchor Bible”) and on the Internet, if you wish to look it up for yourself.

      Like

  5. Blackswan says:

    Pointman … who throws messages in bottles into the tide.

    Sometimes the ripples are enormous and are still lapping distant shores after almost a decade.

    I can’t think of a single instance where the way you craft a difficult story hasn’t resulted in helping people to view a harsh world differently. To think, to put ourselves in impossible situations and confront how we might have dealt with it.

    Recognising ‘humanity’ in all its forms is a gift you’ve given us all. Thank you.

    Like

  6. Jockdownsouth says:

    Thanks Pointy. Brought a tear to my eye.

    Like

  7. JohnTyler says:

    After reading this story I thought “is the cost worth the result?”
    The cost being, all summed up (WWI,II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc) , a million or so dead US military personnel plus an equal amount, or more , maimed.

    Do the citizens of, say, Iraq, Kuwait or Afghanistan really think better of the USA?

    Given the enormous sacrifices US military personnel made during WWI and WWII, do the Europeans believe the USA is a force for good in the world, or do they think Americans are just ignorant, trouble making cowboys?
    Seems to me that Europe would prefer getting cozy with Russian oil/gas than looking across the Atlantic for energy supplies. Then what is the point of NATO?

    Is the USA just being a total sucker?

    Have all the conflicts in which the USA has been involved improved the lot of the ordinary US citizen?

    Would the USA be better off following the foreign policy of a Switzerland or Chile or Peru or Uruguay or Sweden?
    After all, these nations, by not interfering in the affairs of other nations have avoided, for the most part, terrorism and/or military action directed against them.

    Should the USA once again heed the advice of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton to stay away out of the affairs of other nations?

    Like

  8. oldmarine says:

    Everybody got a free pass except Boost.

    Like

  9. cakes says:

    I’m a vet who wasn’t lucky enough to be a REMF. This expresses the rage and love I’ve never been able to talk about.

    Like

  10. cdquarles says:

    God bless you, Pointy, you made this old greybeard curmudgeon of a granddad cry. I never served; failed the physical, yet I knew people who did. I served in civilian service that would put me in as a medic if I was ever called; but it’d have been really bad to have ever gotten to me. I have, though, had to make the call informing someone that their loved one died; and I cried along side of them. And if it ever did get that bad, this old man would go, if they’d let him.

    Like

  11. saroka9 says:

    You paint such vivid pictures of people with a few brush strokes. I know that nurse with a packet of cigarettes in her smock, the patient with a crutch and the cabbie who won’t take payment. The portraits of the major characters are indelible. I can see their faces.

    Like

  12. NoFixedAddress says:

    Like

  13. Blackswan says:

    .

    25th April is ANZAC Day in Australia (Australian & New Zealand Army Corps) and today we remember the huge volunteer armies from these colonies who marched off to fight for King and Empire.

    Dawn of this day in 1915 began the Allied fight for Gallipoli in Turkey and hundreds of thousands on both sides died or became casualties. The Allies never did invade the horrendous meat grinder that was the Gallipoli Peninsula, and after nine months withdrew, many to fight on at the Western Front.

    So why would a nation so revere its biggest military defeat?

    Despite the 1901 Federation of our far-flung colonies, it was the blooding of a whole generation of our finest men, native-born and immigrant alike, on distant battlefields that finally melded us into a proud Nation that stood its ground against a fearsome enemy.

    This day, for over a hundred years, we’ve remembered all of our Fallen, in all wars since, and those who serve today.

    Lest We Forget.

    Like

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