Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Drama · #1586241
A soldier contemplates life after the service.
|AUTHOR'S NOTE: The following story is inspired the image from July 2009's "Short Shots: Official WDC Contest" , as well as by the song "Times They Are A Changin'" by Bob Dylan. Lyrics can be found here: http://www.bobdylan.com/#/songs/times-they-are-changin, and a recording of the song can be heard here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n4JjOmfmAvM.|
Duke wondered if he had made a mistake. He sat nervously in one of the plastic lounge chairs they had dragged out onto the sand earlier that day, before sunset when the crowds really started packing onto the beach. He felt exposed, literally a sitting target out there with no cover. From the huts along the pier to the trees that bordered the parking lot in the distance behind them, he had already made a mental note of the best places to set up a nest, and where the best place for a chokepoint would be.
The people around him didn't escape his alert eyes. He knew the couple on the blanket one behind and two to the left of them had smuggled a bottle of booze onto the beach, despite alcohol being prohibited. The guy one in front and two to the right of them was trying his best to inch his hand up the thigh of the girl he was with, which didn't go unnoticed by Duke or the lady in question. The burly guy directly in front of them was already drunk before he got to the beach, and kept glancing sideways at Duke, sizing him up. He knew that the burly guy had a knife strapped into his cowboy boot and favored his left side.
His muscles were tense and his focus attuned ... even here he couldn't let his guard down. Letting one's guard down was a lethal risk he couldn't afford.
Duke was the best of the best at what he did. Tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, Nigeria... if the United States had a military presence in an armed conflict, Duke had been there, providing his unique set of skills. Unfortunately, they were skills that were useless anywhere else. He was a surgeon without an operating room; a scientist without a laboratory. The theater in which he excelled was closed to him now, and what options did he have left? He enlisted when he was eighteen and didn't even have a high school diploma, let alone a college degree. The only thing he was qualified for was manual labor or minimum-wage grunt work. Instead of brilliant battlefield tactics and high-risk operations, he would now spend his days tearing down drywall or pouring concrete ... if his aching body would let him.
The more he thought about it, the more he began to wish he hadn't agreed to the discharge. His wounds would heal in a couple months, and he still might have had a few good years left in him before things really turned south. This time it was only a gunshot wound, a 7.62mm round from an AK-47 that caught him in the shoulder. It had shredded some muscle, but missed any bones and arteries that would have made it a more serious injury. He had survived worse, and when he was healed there would probably be a little stiffness in that region of his body, but probably nothing more permanent than that.
He loved his wife and daughter, but could he bear to let them see him – to live with him – when he was like this? In the field, he was an impressive man, decorated with virtually every service medal and commendation he could have possibly received. Others looked up to him, even idolized him. His exploits were legendary; seasoned and green soldiers alike sought him out for his expertise. He was a man that would make his family proud.
But that wasn't him anymore. Now he was the guy who woke up in a cold sweat every night, screaming at the phantoms that haunted his dreams. He was the guy who got turned down for a job at Home Depot last week, and the guy who took a handful of pills every day because his knees now creaked, thanks to all those nights spent crouching in the Colombian jungle. His back ached when he stood up for too long, thanks to the herniated disc he received pulling a member of his unit out of the smoldering wreckage of their Humvee after it was hit with a roadside bomb while on patrol in Iraq. He was the guy who dove for cover whenever a car backfired.
How could a family love this man he had become?
But the world didn't need men like Duke anymore. Wars were being fought more and more often with lawyers and politicians and covert operatives; soldiers in the trenches with their rifles were becoming a thing of the past.
And what was a soldier to do, once he outlived his usefulness? They were a rare breed; trained to do the kinds of things that most ordinary people couldn't imagine doing ... provided with a focused skill set that did not carry over into many other fields. He tried law enforcement, but his psych profile pointed out his PTSD as a significant risk factor. He tried private security, but he wasn't young enough or big enough to work as a bodyguard.
Tomorrow he had two interviews set up. One for a job as a security guard at the new business park across town, and one for a job working in the backroom at a local chain bookstore. Duke wasn't particularly looking forward to either one and wasn't sure which would be worse ... coming home to his family to tell them that he hadn't gotten the job, or that he had.
When the first of the fireworks went off, Duke flinched, his hand instinctively moving to his hip, where his sidearm would have been. It wasn't there and, in a brief moment of panic, shook in his chair as more fireworks exploded overhead.
Then, he felt the reassuring hand of his wife, holding onto his wrist firmly ... lovingly. He relaxed a little, her presence calming the demons inside him. He looked over at her angelic, smiling face as she slipped her arm inside his and leaned against his shoulder. His daughter came running back from where she was playing down the beach with one of her friends.
"Daddy! Daddy! It's starting!"
Duke's little girl scrambled up into his lap, where she snuggled against his broad chest. He instantly softened, his body letting go of all the tension it had been holding inside.
"I love you, Daddy," she said, looking up into his eyes.
Duke gave her a hug and looked over at his wife, who was watching the two of them affectionately for a moment before leaning in and wrapping her arms around both of them.
Suddenly, he was at ease. He remembered why he had asked for the discharge and what had kept him alive on all of those missions in all of those foreign war zones. His family was all that mattered to him anymore. Somehow, he would find a way to make the rest work.
Duke sat there on the beach with his family, watching the fireworks glitter and sparkle overhead. A tear slipped out from the corner of his eye, creating a salty trail down his cheek as he watched the fireworks, appreciating their beauty and understanding – perhaps more than most – their significance.