Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Bill Lapham

An Homage to Trumbo

As combat operations go, this one sucked. On the morning of the third day, the squad inspected the weapons they had cleaned after the firefight the night before—M-4’s, 240’s, 203’s, the M-60. They ate chow then formed a huddle. Only the members of Weapons Squad—Baker, Brown, De Jesus, Callahan and Jakes—were in the huddle, no one else. They’d gather in a circle, wrap arms over each other’s shoulders and butt heads while an iPod sound system blasted Drowning Pool’s “Soldiers.” They’d shout the line: “On your feet/who’s with me,” leap into the air and body-slam. Then they’d shout the lines: “THIS is for the soldiers/THIS is for the soldiers” while punching each other in the chest with their hard-plastic knuckle gloved fists, usually at half power. Sometimes, when they were really jacked up on Red Bull and adderall, they’d switch to full power, and had to be stopped by the First Sergeant.
Those who observed the ritual thought the boys were crazy. But these five guys, who came from every corner of the United States, had been together for three combat tours, one in Iraq and now their second in Afghanistan. They had collected more medals for valor than any ten other guys in the division.
They thought leave to go back home was ‘soft shit’. It made warriors act like civilians, and they had no truck with civilians. Civilians had no clue what they did. That they might someday share their thoughts on the subject of war was unthinkable. Even embedded journalists had a hard time penetrating their thick exterior.
By the end of the song, the boys were dancing on a razor’s edge—they were combat ready.
Sergeant Baker led the squad on dismounted patrol that morning. They moved into the valley with their heads on swivels. Steep mountainsides stretched from the river to the sky like a giant V imprinted on the land. Each guy had a sector to scan for threats to the group. They were not waiting for somebody else to shoot first.
The patrol wore on and was relatively uneventful, boring even, until a flash of light illuminated the entirety of the space around them. For an instant, Baker didn’t think the sun could get that bright. It was as if what they had been walking in darkness, and this was suddenly daylight. In the next instant, Baker was smashed to the ground, the wind smashed from his lungs.
*
Sergeant Baker started feeling the pain three months later when he slow-woke in a hospital in Germany. He could hear noises, sounds like words from a language he hadn’t been taught, and doubted he could ever learn. The room looked like it had been submerged in a swimming pool recently violated by a fat boy doing a cannonball. He was cloaked in a bubble of ambiguity, and he would have panicked had he been aware enough to panic.
He and his boys had been known to guzzle a beer or two back in the world. Blackouts were not uncommon. But this was the blackout from hell—
When he woke, nothing remained still, everything moved. Objects seemed to float on unstable cushions of air. Nothing conformed to the nature of things he was accustomed to. A cacophony filled the room and irritated the tiny hairs in his ears, and on his arms and legs.
He wanted quiet, but all he got was noise.
He wanted to go back to sleep, but the air conditioner was blowing air; oxygen hissed; medical devices alarmed; word-sounds reverberated; an electronic voice spoke in a strange language outside his room. Something squeezed his arm, and then let go slowly. He felt a sharp, searing pain in his back and neck, like an enemy was still in the process of inflicting wounds with a bayonet, sticking and twisting.
He knew nothing: not where he was, or who he was, what he was looking at, or what he was hearing. His world was encrypted, staticky, and he had no key for the code. All he knew for sure was that he was hurt, and the pain was intense—
When he woke, someone was standing over him: an insubstantial, amorphous mass of humanness he could not bring into focus. The person-presence was speaking words, a name maybe, maybe his name, maybe not. He heard words, words he thought he knew, or knew a long time ago, a long time, a long—
When he woke, someone was standing over him yelling his name, or what he thought was his name. What he thought—
The rhythm of the sound had a familiar beat, like it was associated with him somehow. A body in a white lab coat was saying his name over and over again.
Why is he doing that? I’m right here, he thought. I can fucking hear you, man, he thought he said. Shut up or I’ll come off this bed and fucking ruin your day, whatever your name is.
Where are my guys?

He thought he was awake, finally, but not for long—
When he woke, the bodies in the room bore a resemblance to forms he had seen before he joined the Army. These people seemed different from the others, the ones in the white coats. These people seemed to know him better; and he seemed to know them. The sounds of the words they used were closer to the set he understood. They followed familiar patterns and their voices were friendlier. They had soft voices, like civilians use. Mom?
Though he felt safe in their midst, he also felt exposed, like his junk was showing.
He didn’t have a weapon—
Where is my weapon?
When he woke, it was by the sound of an alarm. It was coming from one of the machines. One of the people in white coats responded to it, a woman. He was embarrassed he didn’t know her name, though she seemed to know his. Sounds were getting clearer: not as many echoes. His vision was stabilizing, scenes held their firmness. People moved because they had a means of locomotion, not because they floated like ghosts. He could see causes producing effects he could predict. The machines stayed in place, solid, heavy, full of purpose and commitment and knowledge—
When he woke, he heard his name but he couldn’t respond to it. Someone noticed tears in his eyes. They called his name again, and he blinked his eyes. There were more people now, all hovering over him, blocking the light, yelling his name.
Shut the fuck up, I can hear you just fine.
He blinked rapidly, and often, trying to clear his vision. It made his head hurt.
“Brian, can you hear me?” one of them said. “Sergeant Baker. Can you hear me? Blink once for ‘yes,’ twice for ‘no.’
Baker blinked twice. He had lost none of his wit. The guy in the white coat was pissing him off. He wondered if he’d get the joke.
Brian Baker didn’t give a fuck what these people wanted; he wanted to know where his boys were. Were they all right? Was anybody wounded? Were they receiving the care they needed? But he couldn’t form words with his mouth. There was some sort of communications breakdown in his head.
He knew the words; he just couldn’t speak them.
Baker heard the guy in the white coat say to someone else in the room that based on the results of an MRI, they didn’t think he had suffered any cognitive impairment. He had, however, suffered a significant brain injury, and it would take time, maybe a long time, to determine to what extent he would recover.
“No,” the guy continued, as if he was responding to a question Baker couldn’t hear, “he won’t be going back to his old unit. No way.”
Baker’s first thought upon hearing that was:
Bullshit.

© William Lapham 2012

Bill Lapham is a student in the Goddard College low-residency MFA in Creative Writing program. His flash fiction and short stories have been featured here and at MuDSpots, and at Six Sentences, Thinking Ten—A Writer’s Playground, and the Molotov Cocktail. His work has also appeared in several Six Sentences and Thinking Ten print anthologies, as well as Goddard College’s own peer-reviewed literary journal, the Pitkin Review. He lives in Brighton, Michigan.

3 comments:

  1. I used the word 'smashed' twice in the same sentence, the last one before the break. I know you noticed. I think that happens when I revise part of a sentence and not the WHOLE sentence. Lesson: Revise whole sentences. Ugh.

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  2. Seriously, if you don't send this off to major magazines then I won't be your friend anymore.
    I am not sure why I have the feeling that I have read parts of this before, though not the whole satisfying piece that's here.
    So what'll it be? Send this off to editors or lose my friendship?

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  3. This is an outstanding piece Bill- I'm inside Baker's head screaming to get out- I like the repetitive "when he woke" that really solidifies the horror of it all- also didn't think repeating smashed was bad at all-drove it home for me. Excellent.

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