Previous: Part 5 – Saying Goodby
“Colonel Harwood,” the technician said smiling and standing up as Jim entered the small room, “I’ve got the final one here.”
Jim limped towards a chair stuck in the corner and dropped himself into it before taking off the temporary prosthetic he’d been using. It was getting more comfortable as the stump hardened up and he got used to using it, but it was still unpleasant. The phantom pain was getting to be less of an issue as well so long as he was busy doing something.
“I’m getting better with these things,” Jim said as cheerfully as he’d said anything lately. “I like it better than crutches.”
“Give it a few weeks with this one, and you’ll be walking like you never lost your real one.”
“What about running?” Jim was hoping to get back to distance running, but he hadn’t brought the subject up. The thought of getting into the zone and just focusing on the run for an hour or two at a time seemed really appealing to him.
“I wouldn’t try running with this one, but the doc’s already ordered one that will work for that. You’ll just have to swap them out before chasing down any purse snatchers. It should be ready in a week or two.”
“Do you do that for everyone?”
“Doc Stephens does. He’s a runner himself, and he likes to encourage folks who can to try getting back to it.”
“How does the fit change as I gain or lose weight?” Jim asked as he put the new limb on. He’d been sitting still so long he’d gained fifteen pounds, but he had every intention of getting back to his fighting weight once he was out of this place.
“Depends,” the technician answered. “If you chunk up, it’ll get tight, but unless you lose a whole lot from where you are now you shouldn’t have too much of a problem going down. Now,” he said, reaching out with his hand to help Jim to his feet, “let’s see how it works.”
Jim stood up and reached for the double handrails that were by now very familiar. He walked almost effortlessly to the other end and turned to come back. “Seems a little lighter than the last one, and it moves better.”
“We’ll work over stairs and level ground today, and probably get you on the exercise bikes tomorrow to try something different.”
The next several hours consisted of repeatedly stepping up, stepping down; stepping forward, stepping back; walking down the hall, then turning and walking back. It was mind-numbingly boring, but so was everything about spending endless days in a hospital and rehab center. It was getting easier to just switch off and let the time go by, but that had its downsides. He couldn’t switch off just the bad or boring stuff. When he switched off, he switched off almost everything and moved through the motions of his daily routine mechanically doing what he knew needed doing and nothing more.
As Jim sat down to rest for a few minutes before making his way back to the shuttle that would take him to his apartment, Colonel Chelwood walked into the large room scanning it for someone. Seeing Jim, he walked directly over.
“Jim,” the Doctor started to say. Jim began to stand up to greet him, but Colonel Chelwood waived for him to sit back down as he took a seat on a nearby stool. “I came down to let you know the medical review board will be looking at your case in the next few weeks. I’ll be sitting on the board.”
“Do you think they’ll retire me?” Jim asked.
“It depends a lot on what you want to do.”
“How do you mean?”
“If you don’t do anything, they’ll almost certainly retire you. However, if you want to stay on active duty I can fight for you. There are plenty of active duty soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen who are missing one body part or another. With what you do, you could probably function just fine.”
Jim knew this conversation was going to occur, and he had spent considerable amounts of time pondering over how he would respond. For months, he was certain there was nothing that would convince him to stay on active duty. That was true even before the accident, and losing his family and then his leg seemed to cement that resolution into an impermeable mass of granite. But now that he was facing that prospect for real, he was having second thoughts. Looking around the room he realized that the Air Force was about all he had left, and leaving it, no matter how much he hated it, would be difficult.
“What do you think doc?” Jim had developed a good deal of respect for the psychologist. Next to K9, Doc Chelwood was the closest thing Jim had to a friend in this place.
“I can’t make that decision for you, but if it were me, I’d take the retirement. Any way you cut it, all going back to regular duty would do is postpone the next phase of your life by a few years.”
“Can I spend a few days thinking about it?”
Do four years then get out… that was always the plan. But the job prospects weren’t all that good when the time came, and an assignment to the gulf-coast of Florida sounded like a good time. He and Leslie had agreed he would continue on active duty at least until they got another assignment, then decide from there. That was four years ago, and time was up on his current assignment. This round, there hadn’t been much discussion about whether to stay or not. Inertia had mostly taken over.
Jim opened the email and began reading. Bolling. DC. This hadn’t been on his wish-list, but then again, that didn’t surprise him. The bean-counters at the personnel center didn’t seem to care even a little bit about what you wanted when it came time to match people against the available jobs. At least it was just Leslie and him… it’d be a lot harder to do DC if they had kids. He picked up the phone and called Leslie.
“Hey gorgeous,” Jim started.
“Are you inviting me out to lunch?”
“No. I’ve got a meeting in a few minutes I can’t get out of. I just wanted to let you know I’ve got our next assignment.”
“Bolling Air Force Base.”
“Where’s that?” Leslie asked.
“Just across the river from DC on the Maryland side.”
“Oh…” She didn’t sound particularly enthusiastic.
“No. It’s just kind of a shock.”
“I’ve gotta run. See you tonight.”
“Alright. Love you.”
Jim walked into the house almost an hour later than usual, which wasn’t in itself particularly unusual. Leslie was waiting for him with a candle-light dinner all prepared.
“Wow,” Jim exhaled, “I didn’t think you’d be this excited about moving to Washington.”
“I’m not. This is for something else.”
“Then what are we celebrating tonight?”
“We’re going to have a baby!” Leslie beamed.
After years of trying, Jim had given up and resigned himself to being a rent-a-dad to other kids at church who’s parents were divorced. This was awesome news!
The revelation did come with other implications though. Jim had spent a fair portion of the afternoon thinking about leaving the Air Force rather than accepting this assignment, but with Leslie’s medical history it would be a very bad idea to drop or change medical coverage until after the baby came. It looked like it would be at least another two years.
Jim shook himself back to the present. Life was less complicated here. All he had to worry about was the daily grind of rehab. But that sense of ease faded just as quickly as it had come to mind. The status quo was about to change, like it or not. He had gotten hints that they were coming to the end of his rehab and that it wouldn’t be long before he had to move on with life.
Jim got up, thanked the therapist, and began down the hall, leaning heavily on his cane as he went. He was tired from the session, but that was only a part of it. He was replaying the conversation he’d just had with the Doctor in his mind, and couldn’t believe what he heard there. Was he really having second thoughts about letting them quietly retire him? Six months ago he would have given almost anything to be a civilian.
“K9, you in there?” Jim shouted as he banged on the door. His apartment was too quiet at the moment and he didn’t want to be alone. Jim heard a bump and a crash, but no other answer.
“Hey, open up, would ya?”
“Just a sec,” came the very slurred reply. A few minutes later Jim heard the click of the lock as K9 unlocked it, but the door didn’t open. Jim turned the handle and let himself in.
The apartment was trashed. Much of the cheap furniture in the room was scattered and overturned, several dishes had been shattered and the shards covered the floor, and there was a large pile of empty beer bottles on the coffee table.
“You do all this?” Jim asked.
“Yeah…” K9 said sadly.
“Come over to my place. We’ll clean this up later.”
K9 nodded, then started struggling to get up onto his wheelchair. His prosthetic was nowhere to be seen. Jim moved in and tried to help prop K9 up, but he was far too unsteady himself to be much use. The best he could do was hold onto the chair to keep it from rolling away as a severely inebriated K9 hauled himself into it. After several failed attempts resulted in very loud strings of profanity, K9 finally succeeded in hoisting himself up in the chair.
“Where’s your key?”
Jim scattered the empty bottles and found the key right where it was supposed to be. A fact that amazed him.
“I’m not done…” K9 started to say. Jim didn’t need him to finish. He knew what was wanted, and gingerly made his way through the mess to the fridge and found a full case of the cheap high-gravity stuff. It was going to be one of those nights.
Getting the beer out of the kitchen turned out to be an ordeal though. He couldn’t quite navigate the broken glass on the floor and scattered chairs and overturned table with the heavy box in his hands. He progressively leaned forward as far as he could without losing his balance and set down his load, stepped forward using his hands against the wall to stabilize himself, then repeated the process until he reached the door and K9. Setting the beer on the wheelchair where K9’s leg should have been, Jim made four more trips to the kitchen to retrieve a large bottle of whiskey, another of vodka, a case of Coke, and a large bottle of orange juice. All these he set down on by the door so he could come back and get them after delivering K9.
Jim wheeled the chair out the door, using it as much to steady himself as to move K9, pulled the door shut behind them, and made the short trip to his apartment. After pushing K9 in the door and propping him in a chair, Jim rolled the wheelchair back to retrieve the rest of the booze.
“Shepherd…” K9 said after Jim had pulled the door shut behind him.
“Yeah?” Jim said, handing K9 a beer.
“Don’t you ever want to drink your troubles away?”
“Give in tonight. Lets be oblivious for a while.”
Jim hadn’t been drunk since college. It hadn’t worked then, and he didn’t honestly think it was working for K9 now.
“Does it really help?” Jim asked, mostly trying to convince his friend he’d had enough.
“No. You have to sober up eventually. But tonight is special.”
“Sixteen years ago today my life ended. I’m celebrating my death.”
“Selection?” Jim asked. K9 had said a few times that making it through Special Forces selection was the biggest mistake of his life, followed closely by surviving the Allegheny mountains.
“Enlistment. That’s where it all started.”
The two of them sat in silence for a while staring at a blank television.
“Doc told me they were going to board me soon,” Jim said, still staring at the television. “Asked if I wanted to stay.”
K9 looked at the beer he’d been holding. He hadn’t touched it yet, so he held it out to Jim. “You need this more than I do.”
Jim mechanically took the bottle and took a long pull on it. The bitter taste was as bad as he’d remembered, but he didn’t care at the moment. A few minutes later K9 handed him another. Jim drank it in silence and reached for another a few minutes later.
“My board made their decision today,” K9 said sadly. “I’m medically retired effective immediately.” He broke down sobbing and started beating his head against the back of the couch. It was the only life he’d known, and now what remained of it was over.
An hour passed in silence, the two friends sitting side-by-side staring at nothing. The only sound was the occasional hiss of a beer being opened.
“What next?” Jim asked.
“Well,” K9 said thoughtfully, “I can’t keep doing this.”
The floor was beginning to move every time Jim moved his head, and the walls were strangely unstable. He was getting rather drunk, but didn’t feel any better. Maybe it would change with another beer. But first he needed to pee.
“C’mon” Jim announced unexpectedly, “we both need a pit-stop. I don’t want to have to replace the couch.”
K9 nodded and started crawling on his three good limbs towards the bathroom a few yards away. Jim followed in the same manner, unsure he was stable enough to walk or use crutches.
“What a sad lot,” Jim said as he came out of the toilet, “crawling our way to the crapper.”
They both rolled on the floor laughing for several seconds, but the laughing turned into tears and self-loathing before they made it back to the couch and sunk down sullenly..
“How much do you have to drink to make it go away?” Jim asked in tears. As stupid as he’d been in college, he’d never blacked out, and he hoped there was a threshold somewhere nearby that he just needed to cross.
“More than your liver can process, and then you wake up and nothing’s changed except for how you feel about yourself.”
Jim grabbed another beer. K9 poured a stout shot of whiskey in a glass and topped it off with Coke.
“What next?” Jim asked again.
“What about a road-trip. You’re about where you can drive again, right?”
“Anywhere… just away from here.”
They sat in silence again. It was getting late, but neither moved other than to crawl to the toilet or get another drink.
“I’ve hated the Air Force for the last two years,” Jim said suddenly, “why on earth would I want to stay now.”
“What else do we have left?”
“Would you stay if they let you?”
“Hell no, but I don’t want to leave either,” K9 answered emphatically. “It’s like the kind of relationships you see on Jerry Springer. You love it and need it, but you can’t stand to live with it. I don’t know anything else anymore.”
“A road trip…” Jim mused, then opened the last beer he’d drink that night. “Here’s to being screwed-up civilians,” he said, raising his bottle and almost falling over in the process.