“You want to do what?” I can’t believe what I just heard.
“Are you deaf, Trent? I want to go bowling,” Will says.
I smoothly dodge a young child bolting past me down Michigan Avenue, and then hop out of the way when the little boy’s mother sprints after him, hollering his name and muttering things in what I think is polish. Why is it so damn busy down here today? There are no sports teams playing, so what gives?
“You do realize that this just means I’ll get to prove once more that I’m better than you at everything,” I say with a small smirk.
My best friend gives me a doubtful glance as we pass a couple making out in front of Macy’s and rolls his eyes. “Do I need to remind you of who saved your ass in Afghanistan, soldier? You wouldn’t be here running your mouth right now if it wasn’t for me,” he states.
This is the first time he’s brought that up since we got back on U.S. soil five years ago. He’s right, though. I owe him my life. He’s better at sniffing out roadside bombs than the dogs we were using.
“Low blow, man,” I mutter, frowning and centering my eyes on the sidewalk directly in front of me. It actually doesn’t bother me, but I don’t like not having the last word. I guess that makes me an asshole.
We walk in silence for a few minutes, and I take the time to do some enjoying of the beautiful May day we were blessed with. May in Chicago, the city I was born into and will never turn my back on, is always stunning. There’s nothing like the scent of Uno’s pizza, Garrett’s Popcorn, Hot Doug’s Chicago Dogs, and the spring sun on the lake all mixed together. It brings us all out of our winter shells so we’re ready to continue the ongoing battles from last year: Cubs vs Sox, Lou’s vs Uno’s, Tom Skilling vs Amy Freeze, etc. Everyone’s got their opinion and no one ever switches sides. In fact, I believe you’re extradited to Cheese Head Country if you switch your baseball team loyalty.
As we approach the intersection of Michigan and Ontario, I hear the now familiar sound of the Polish mother’s voice, but it’s no longer just irritated. It’s a mother’s voice I heard a lot as a kid, the one that infers two things simultaneously: my child is in danger-anyone who gets in my way will die and when I get my hands on you, you’re going to wish I said ‘wait until your father gets home.’ I automatically turn around to see what the problem is and find the tyke running head long into traffic. I hit Will in the arm to get his attention. He turns, sees the child, and jumps into action as only Will can. The hero’s at it again. The child is running west on Ontario headed toward Michigan Avenue, and when I say he’s on Ontario, I mean he’s on the actual road. No sidewalk for this young man. The problem is that he’s looking over his shoulder and smiling at his horrified mother instead of at the northbound Michigan Avenue traffic he’s about to step into.
What no one else but me seems to see is the scrawny, gangly man with the gun running after the child’s mother. It’s a .50 cal, and it’s pointed right at the back of her head. This guy means business, and I have no idea if the woman knows he’s there or not. I see Will jump out onto Ontario and snatch the child up in his right arm. I guess it’s up to me to take care of the a-hole with the gun. I time my leap, and just as the mother breezes past me, I smash myself into the gunman. We tumble to the ground, and let me say, the pavement on Ontario is quite unyielding. I feel the skin on my left elbow give as it scrapes across the rocky curb, but I can’t worry about that right now. There’s a gun somewhere around here, and I’m not sure if I was able to jolt it out of the guy’s hand or not.
“Son of a…!” I hear Will shout from somewhere behind me although I’m not sure why.
I roll on top of the man as my eyes sweep the immediate area for the weapon. I spot it and not a moment too soon. It’s still in his hand, and he’s lifting it toward my head. I catch the expression on his now bloodied face as I reach for the gun, and it’s not what I thought it would be. He’s laughing. Maniacally. His eyes are glazed over, and I swear I’m looking at The Joker’s grin straight out of a Batman comic. I easily snatch the weapon out of his hand and climb swiftly to my feet, pointing the barrel right at his laughing, convulsing body.
“What’s so goddamned funny?!” I yell at him. Then I hear a sickening thud. It’s a sound that when you hear it once, you never forget it. Someone just got the kiss of death from a car. Then there’s screaming and the screeching of tires. My head whips to the left, and I find what I hoped I wouldn’t.
Traffic has stopped in all four directions. People are jumping out of their cars with the exception of some cabbies. They’re laying on their horns and flinging rude gestures out their windows. Everyone is running toward the middle of the intersection, but it’s blocked from my line of sight by a conversion van. The laughter of the maniac at my feet is drowned out by the renewed screaming on the other side of the van. What the hell just happened?! My eyes scan the parts of the area I can see, looking for Will, but he’s not here. I look down at One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and back up at the intersection. Shit. Now what the hell do I do? I need to see what happened, but I can’t leave Bates Motel here alone. Dammit! Where’s Will?!
Then, something happens. I don’t know what at the moment, but I know something did because I can tell I’m no longer standing. I’m flying, horizontally, through the air. There’s no pain. In fact, there’s no feeling whatsoever.
It isn’t until I’m able to peel myself off the street that I notice my hearing is shot, like I’m underwater. My eyesight is blurry, I taste nothing but blood in my mouth, and all I smell is death. What’s death smell like? Metallic, sweat, and gunpowder. Wait. Gunpowder?
I wobble dangerously once I’m on my feet and steady myself on the overturned car next to me. Then I do a double take. Why is there an overturned car next to me? That’s when I look up at my now completely unfamiliar surroundings. My brain seems to shut down just as I start to process what I’m seeing, but my eyes are still working, and no longer blurry. Although, once I see what happened, I wish they still were blurry.
The major intersection of Michigan and Ontario is so quiet that it hurts. My ears are literally aching without the sounds of cars, horns, and people chatting. No vehicles are moving because there are no vehicles left that aren’t on their sides or roofs or in one piece. All the store windows have been blown out, leaving gaping black holes where clothing, iPhones, and jewelry had once been. Sidewalk and street mesh in piles of crumbled concrete and asphalt. Small fires that are scattered around the area are struggling to stay alive.
It’s like the end of the world.
I take a step and stumble the rest of the way into what used to be the intersection. I trip over something soft and land on my hands and knees. I force myself to not look at what just tripped me up because I’m pretty sure I know what it is, and it shouldn’t be lying on its own unattached from its owner. I stand back up and force my eyes to sweep the ground around me. The marine in me knows exactly what just happened, but the civilian in me doesn’t want to believe it. Things like this just don’t happen outside the military. They don’t happen outside of Afghanistan.
A bomb went off. In the middle of Chicago.
“Will!” I shout, spinning around, my eyes searching the wreckage desperately for my best friend. “Will! Goddamn it! Where are you?! Answer me!” I listen. Seconds pass. There are no sounds. I begin digging. Right where I stand.
There’s no way. I refuse to believe it. Will had to have been blown off to the side like I was. He’s still okay. He’s still alive. Because the world wouldn’t be able to go on without him.
I dig through rubble for what feels like hours. My fingers begin bleeding, but I don’t care. My friend saved my life. Now is my time to save his.
Twenty minutes later, I’m forced to stop. Not only have I completely destroyed my hands picking up sharp pieces of concrete, but the tears in my eyes are making it impossible to see. I fall down onto my butt and pull my knees to my chest.
“Goddamn it!” I shout into the dead air around me. I allow the civilian in me out and begin to sob, covering my face with my red and sticky palms. Soldiers don’t cry. They don’t. But I can’t be a soldier right now. I don’t have my M16A2 rifle. I don’t have my utility uniform. I don’t have any of my gear.
And I don’t have Will.
I close my eyes and collapse onto the crumbled pavement below me. The silent and smoky environment around me slowly fades, allowing peace to blanket over me. I welcome it with open arms. Is this death? Is it? Do I want this? Is there anything else to live for?
“Dammit! Trent! Wake the hell up!”
The voice pierces through the heavy, foggy darkness around me, and I struggle to open my eyes. I’m bouncing around, and I’m not sure why. I thought I was dead. If the path to heaven is this uncomfortable…
Am I on my way to hell?
“Trent, I swear to God, if you don’t wake the fuck up, I’m going to shove my boot so goddamn far up your ass that you’ll be tasting rubber for a week!”
Oh my God. Will!
My eyes pop open, and I try to sit up, but something’s restraining me. I’m lying down, and I can’t get up. Will’s scruffy, tanned face appears in my line of sight. He’s alive. He’s uninjured, well, as far as I can tell. And he’s worried. Will doesn’t worry.
“What the hell is going on, Will?!” I ask, pulling desperately at the straps across my chest. “You survived the bomb? Where were you, man?! I looked for you for hours!”
Will closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, releasing it slowly. When he opens his eyes again, they’re full of pity…and understanding. “Trent, there was no bomb,” he says.
“Then what the hell was it?!” I yelp. I stare down at the straps across my chest and growl. “Get these goddamn things off of me, Will!” I continue pulling at them until a pair of hands that aren’t Will’s grab mine and pin then down at my sides. “Hey!” I shout.
“Trent, calm the hell down,” Will says, placing a hand on my shoulder. I see him look up at something behind me and shake his head. The mystery hands release me, and I utter some words my mother would disown me for saying out loud. He looks back down at me. “There was no bomb. Nothing happened except for a concerned mother yelling at her delinquent of a son. You had a flashback, man.”
Will must see the confusion on my face, although I doubt even a blind man could miss it. “Something about that woman yelling brought you back, Trent. I don’t know what it was you saw back in Afghanistan, but whatever it was, you need to see a shrink or something. That was…Wow.” Will’s eyes widen and unfocus as they gaze at my face.
Shit. I had a flashback? “But it was so real, Will. How in the…?” I drop my head back and rest it on whatever I’m lying on. What am I lying on? I lift my head again and look around. Oh. The cabinets on my right, the bleachy medical smell mixed with diesel, and the paramedic sitting next to Will give it away. I’m in an ambulance. Shit. It was bad.
“Don’t worry about it, Trent,” Will says, placing his hand back on my shoulder. “We’ll get this figured out. We’ll get you help.”
I rest my head back again and close my eyes. Now I owe this man not only my life but my sanity. Does this mean I have to tell him what I saw in Afghanistan? Cause I know what it was that caused this. Oh yes, I know exactly what I saw. I thought that secret would die with me. I thought I could bury it, make it disappear. Or at least convince myself it didn’t happen. But it did, and now it’s coming out. Oh God.
I look up at my best friend and swallow deeply, nervously. His eyebrows come together in puzzlement. “What’s wrong, Trent? You’re pale as death.”
I swallow again even though my mouth has gone completely dry. “Will, I have something to tell you.” He sits forward, getting his face closer to mine. “I know what happened. I–”