You shuddered and winced slightly as the car door slammed behind you, another one of the nervous tics that you’ve developed over the past few months. There’s the one where you bow gently to the right every time you leave your house through the garage. For the past few weeks, you’ve taken to gently rattling your perpetually filled bottle of pills whenever you drive through the entrance of the base. These little habits worried you, made you consider seeing a shrink. But this shuddering, this was expected. In fact, you’re somewhat surprised that it took so long for it to start happening. With what you do being what it is; it was only a matter of time that it started happening at work. You just thought you would have started taking it home later.
It’s a Sunday and you had to be back at work in fifty-six minutes. There’s no day that you never work because what you do is consistently urgent. Even doctors, you think to yourself, have days off. But you’re the exception to that rule. Sure, the guys back on base understand if you need to take a few hours off or even the whole morning, but if you miss a whole day for anything other than a family emergency or a birthday, then the psych department gets called and it’s a clusterfuck of the grandest proportions, so it really isn’t worth it.
Everyone finds a way to keep going. Jim Travis, the guy you first deployed with, has a folder on his iPhone of pictures of puppies and kittens that he looks at whenever it gets to be too much. Hank Millet, who once took you camping and tried to set you up with his sister, is the opposite. He keeps pictures of dead soldiers, it doesn’t matter whom they were fighting for, but whoever it is, he says it helps “remind me why what we do is actually worth something.” Captain Damon, the guy who supposedly has it all together, does a shot of bourbon before every meal he eats. You’ve seen him do it. Then there’s you, with your pills that you get from your not-so-legitimate doctor in the shadier part of town every other Sunday on your lunch break, just so that you can make it back in time to get to the next house.
You pulled into the parking lot of Dr. DeJesus’s office. It’s in a strip mall and his place is in between a nail salon that you swear is only frequented by exceptionally large African-American women and a shuttered storefront on the other end, fully tagged with sloppy graffiti. The doctor was a slight, nervous man who would look around nervously whenever his receptionist, Donna, would shout out your name. You couldn’t understand why he was engaged in all this unethical and illegal pill stuff. After all, he had pictures of his family everywhere on the walls and he didn’t really need the money. His lime green Hummer was always parked right in front. The only justification you could muster up was that he must have served at one point and he understood the toughness of your situation. That said, you weren’t even sure that he’d ever been inside a recruitment office, so you had no evidence whatsoever, just a flimsy game of hypothetical pretending that you played to distract yourself on the long car ride to his office.
When he eased open the door to his office, you could see that he was trembling slightly and sweating noticeably. He slid the door shut behind you and locked it as quickly as he could manage. Exhaling, he walked around his desk and sat down in his chair, fiddling with his pristine white coat the entire time.
“What can I do for you this time, Mr. Jennings?”
“Please call me Tommy.” You’d asked him that every time and he would do it that visit, but the next instance you came back it would just revert to the same thing.
“Sure thing Tommy. What do you need today?”
“Zoloft. Same as last time.”
“Is that what you’re on now?”
“Ok, let’s get you some more of those then.”
“Awesome. Could you get me some more pills this batch so that I don’t have to come back here again soon?”
“Not possible. I can’t just go around writing prescriptions for soldiers to get a hundred Zoloft capsules. I could get my license taken away.” His voice rose.
“Jesus, fine. I was just asking.” You always thought he was kind of a bitch.
“Here you go,” he said, as he slipped you the note. “You got the paper?”
“The paper? Yeah, here’s your damn money.” The doctor counted it twice before easing it into his pocket. You stood up to leave.
“Hey Tommy,” the doctor called out.
“Yeah?” You turned at the door.
“Semper fi.” He thought he was the shit.
“I’m not a fucking marine,” you muttered, and slammed the door shut, making your way back to your car. You had forty-three minutes to get to the base and you still had to change into your Class A uniform before you went out.
You made it back in eighteen minutes, your quickest time yet. If the other guys were all ready when you were done changing, you could probably leave early and have enough time to make it to the pharmacy and drop off the prescription. Then you could get home and finish that carton of Ben and Jerry’s you’d left for yourself in the fridge. It was either Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough or Half Baked; you couldn’t remember which one. It might have been both.
You rushed into the locker room and took a brisk shower, not even letting it heat up all the way. You got out and dried as speedily as you could. Throwing on your underwear and socks, you jogged over to your locker, where you gingerly lifted your perfectly pressed uniform off the hanger and draped it over a chair. You put it on meticulously, ensuring that every button was immaculately attached, no threads hanging off, nothing. Satisfied, you transferred it to your body, feeling it fit exactly as it should. Sitting down, you wiped off a few little scuffs from your shoes and then put them on slowly and carefully, making sure to lace them exactly as you had for the past two and a half years. When you were finally content, you leaned over and grabbed your hat and headed out.
When you got to the lounge, the other three guys were already there. Bill, the medic, was busy shooting the shit with Jim, the officer who would stay in the car. Dom, your favorite chaplain out of all of them, was sitting in one of the leather chairs facing the TV, switching through the channels aimlessly. Seeing them all there was bittersweet. You were happy that you were going to be able to get to the pharmacy, but disappointed that you were the last one to arrive, for what felt like the fiftieth time in a row.
“Let’s get a move on boys.” Your voice boomed throughout the small, brightly lit room and they snapped to attention simultaneously. “Yes sir,” they responded and gathered their things.
The car was a Ford Crown Victoria, like the ones that you see in cop movies. You drove, the chaplain sat next to you and Jim and Bill were in the back. Dom was usually quiet during these trips, thinking of how best to console and provide the comfort that many of the families sought from him. Jim, the only one of the four of you who was armed, never had to deal with the crushing difficulty of the repetitive exercise that you had to perform every day. He sat in the car and only had to do something if someone got violent. Bill didn’t have to deal with it either. He stayed a few steps back, only there to assist if someone fainted or had an unhealthy reaction to their arrival. He only had to come in once, when some twenty-year-old sergeant’s grandmother was so devastated that she vomited all over your shoes. You felt worse than she did.
“You guys see that movie?” Jim often started the conversations, if there were any.
“Which one you fucking idiot?” In turn, Bill would start the bickering.
“Shut up dick. I’m serious. I saw it last night on pay-per-view. It was about us. I think it was called ‘The Deliverer’ or ‘The Message’ or something.”
“How do you mean about us?” This was the chaplain. “Like a war movie?”
“No, like actually about us. About CNOs.”
“Fuck no. They didn’t really make a goddamn movie about some casualty notification officers. Hollywood must be completely out of ideas.” You never liked to get involved in these debates, but this was too interesting to pass up. “Who was in it? Like Harry Potter or some queer like that?”
“No sir. Woody Harrelson.”
“Even I’m sexier than Woody Harrelson,” the chaplain laughed, with everyone else joining in.”
“Was it any good?” You’d always secretly thought they’d make a movie about your line of work but figured it was too depressing, too bleak for anyone to want to see it.
“Yeah, I guess. I made it all the way through. It’s no masterpiece though.”
“Oh lord,” the chaplain exhaled. This startled Jim and he stopped talking. The chaplain was always composed, never frazzled.
“What’s up Dom?” You were as surprised as the others.
“Look at this, the address that we’re supposed to be notifying right now. It’s on the right, number four-twenty-six.”
“Holy fuck,” you muttered, looking out the window, “they’re having a goddamn barbecue.”
You pulled over to the side of the road, not even bothering to find a spot to park. There had to be fifteen cars already there. You glanced down at your notecard, trying hard to remember the name. You’d had the script memorized ever since you started the job, almost three years before, so it was the names you had to be paying attention to. You closed your eyes for a few seconds and took a deep breath. There was no way of knowing what was going to happen out there. Best-case scenario, you ruin the lives of a couple of people and ruin a perfectly good afternoon for everyone out there. Worst-case scenario, someone gets pissed or so distraught that they do something stupid. You hadn’t really had something like that happen before, but you’d never had to tell someone that their nineteen year old child had been vaporized by an IED in front of forty people either. You exhaled and got out of the car.
With Bill and Dom close behind, you closed the door and started walking, shuddering and wincing as the sound resounded. As you approached the gathering of people, the aroma of blackened beef wafting through the air, the bustling of silverware and gentle laughs abruptly ceased. You were still fifty feet away and each step you took, your gleaming shoes squishing against the grass, only exacerbated the tension more. Twenty feet away, you heard an ear-piercing shriek. Then came the quickening sobs and what sounded like a table falling over. A middle-aged, somewhat heavy, blonde woman who you presumed to be the mother of Jerry L. Holbrook, resident of 426 Kettle Drive, confirmed KIA on May sixteenth, 2008 had fainted and was lying on the ground. Another woman cradled her head in her lap and fanned her face with a grease-stained paper plate until she regained consciousness a few seconds later. Bill was by her side as well, checking her pulse.
“Ms. Holbrook, I am Captain Thomas Jennings. The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your son, James was killed in action in Baghdad on May 16th. Private Holbrook was part of a convoy delivering supplies to a forward operating base when the convoy was ambushed. The Secretary extends his deepest sympathy to you and your family in your tragic loss.”
You were surprised. No one was rushing to comfort the woman in front of you, even though she had tears streaming down her face. She was trying to say something, so you knelt down to hear. “It’s-it’s not me. I’m not the mo-mother. I’m James’s aunt Ru-Ruthie.” With that, she began sobbing once more.
You had been so sure that this woman was the mother that you had disobeyed protocol and had forgotten to ask her to identify herself. The crowd around you began to murmur and you started realizing the amount of bureaucratic shit that you were going to get for this back at base. “Does anyone know where the mother of Private James Holbrook is?” Your voice boomed throughout the yard. “I’m right here,” a woman said, closing the door to the house. For a few moments, you stared at her, motionless. All you wanted was to sneak off so that you could reach into your pocket and choke down one of the pills that would make everything, the tics and that heavy silence; just go away for a minute or two. “Just say it,” she muttered and looked you straight in the eyes. You nodded and removed your hat. “Ms. Holbrook, I am Captain Thomas Jennings. The Secretary of the Army…”
Julian Gerson, Age 16, Grade 11, The Dalton School, Silver Key