Cliff endured his own wounds, but what about the wounds of a loved one?
It's the Same All Over
Cliff needed a break. Staying home while his wife worked caused his mind to wander, something he despised. His support group suggested he pursue some outdoor activities, which he enjoyed only when someone else was with him, but shame, fear, and uncertainty snaked around his thoughts whenever he was alone. The stares of strangers and the non-aggressive pointing and shocked glances pasted on young children's faces trampled on his self-worth. He hated being trapped in a wheelchair.
He pressed the control knob forward and wheeled himself by the front window. It was such a pretty spring day outside. Across the street, the front yard sprinkler pivoted back and forth, and with each pivot, the sunlight created a rainbow which appeared then disappeared only to reappear again. A few cars sat parked next to the curb, and most of the neighbor's driveways were empty. There was a good chance he wouldn't encounter anyone if he ventured outside right now. Wheeling himself around the block had become a definite possibility... until he spotted a large black pickup roaring down the street.
He dropped his head as a horrific memory spread throughout his mind. The roar from inside his armored vehicle nearly drowned out the noise of the armored vehicle in front of him. In the distance, a large plume of dark gray smoke rose and leaned left, following the wind. The radio chatter confirmed the explosion had taken place up ahead, and the convoy of his armored vehicle, plus five others, were ordered to go see if any of their brethren were hurt or pinned down. It wasn't the first mission he'd been on like this, but he was keenly aware it could be his last.
Ammunition was prepared and loaded while the exhaust of the lead vehicle joined the heat from outside. The open hatch above allowed it to fill the vehicle's cramped quarters. The guys inside with him reassured one another that they needed to go in and clean up any insurgents or do their best to keep them at bay while the rest of the team rescued anyone that needed it. It was a mental game he played many times and won, so far. Everyone just had to keep their heads together.
A nearby explosion rocked the vehicle and everyone tumbled forward. All forward movement stopped. Confusion took over as everyone questioned what had happened. Cliff took a brief glimpse through the small front window. The vehicle in front of them lay on its side with black smoke and dirt swirling around it. Dammit, the guys inside!
Another explosion nearly shattered his eardrums as screams from his fellow soldiers engulfed the vehicle. He felt himself off balance then falling. He slammed into the side of the vehicle before everything went black.
A loud commercial shook his mind from its dark place. He raised his head and stared out the window once more. His chest rose and sank as the action of the water sprinkler across the street became his focus. He wished to see the rainbows.
The sound of the garage door opening caused him to sigh. She was home. His love for his wife had blossomed ever since she chose to be by his side during his hospital stays and therapy, both mental and physical. Watching her take care of him lodged a permanent lump in his throat. She'd become a superwoman in his eyes. Occasionally, whenever she wasn't looking at him, he had noticed her drooping shoulders, the downward corners of her mouth, and her sorrowful eyes. He knew he'd become a burden, and that the current state of affairs was something neither of them were prepared for. Nevertheless, she was there for him, and he could feel her love.
After she prepared a light meal, he said,
"Sharon, I know you just got home, but do you want to go for a walk around the neighborhood? Just a short one around the block and by the junior high school."
Sharon looked up and replied, "You must have read my mind. I need to get out. Sitting in that office all day, just to come home and sit again, isn't fun. Yeah, let's go for a stroll. It would do both of us good." She leaned over and kissed him on the lips.
He watched as Sharon slipped a couple of water bottles and two small bags of Ranch Doritos into the pouch on the side of his wheelchair. He knew they wouldn't be gone that long, but Sharon had discovered, after some time, that she needed to be prepared for the unexpected.
He heard her footsteps following him down the ramp in front of the house after she locked the door, so he paused and waited for her to reach his side. They always walked hand-in-hand ever since they started dating, but now, he appreciated having her just walk next to him.
The sun felt good on his face and shoulders, and the soft buzz from his wheelchair didn't interfere with the quiet within the neighborhood. She'd gotten off early from work today, so traffic was light and all the kids were still in school.
They engaged in light banter about the green lawns of the neighborhood, the homes where their neighbors stayed, and about what they would do this spring. He felt comfortable with her, and thoughts of his disability faded.
They turned the corner and approached the junior high school with the wrought-iron fence around it. No one lingered outside, and it could have passed as abandoned. The school reminded him of stories about cutting classes while he attended junior high, and Sharon teased him about it.
A faint scream caught Cliff's ear. He tilted his head. There were more screams, but still faint. "Do you hear that, Sharon?"
"Yeah. Where is it coming from?"
"I don't know." They stopped and listened while scanning the area. The two sets of double doors in front of the school burst open, and kids poured through them, scattering in all directions as they screamed. "What the hell is happening in there?"
"I don't know, but let's get out of here," Sharon said, her voice expressing her shock.
Cliff pushed on the chair's knob to go forward. It inched forward and stopped. He pushed and pushed and pushed. Nothing.
"Dammit! I didn't charge this damn thing, Sharon."
"Shit! Okay, I'll try to push you."
The chair barely moved as he heard her grunts, and he realized he'd really become a burden. She was never supposed to be pushing his heavy chair. Why didn't he remember to charge it? He could hear her heavy breathing along with the screams from the children. But another sound caught his ear. A sound that he hoped he'd never hear again.
He looked over at the school doors. A lone kid, with stringy hair, hustled down the front stairs carrying a rifle, aiming, pointing, and pulling the trigger. The kids who he targeted dropped. Cliff craved to do something. He'd been trained for something like this, but his body refused to work.
He kept his eye on the shooter as sirens closed in. Then his eyes grew as the nose of the rifle stared directly at him. He heard the shot.
His wife screamed.
The wheelchair stopped its forward motion, and the sound of a thud behind him caused him to gasp. He twisted his body as much as he could. There lay Sharon, her shoulder stained bright red.
"Sharon! Sharon! Say something!"
She moaned then said, "Cliff, it hurts. It hurts so much! Baby, it hurts so much!" He watched her tears run across the bridge of her nose. As the blood stain spread over her clothing, he swiveled his head to locate the shooter. The sound of the sirens were nearly upon him. Cliff watched the shooter take aim at him again, and he squeezed his eyes tight.
Multiple shots sliced through the neighborhood.
When he opened his eyes, the shooter was down. He couldn't believe another war zone appeared in his own neighborhood, but quickly his attention returned to his injured wife. He turned back and saw her crying, which was something he hoped he'd see, instead of her lying still.
"Help! Somebody help us! Please help us!" he shouted.