Jake Cray lay reclined in the hospital bed staring up at the ceiling. He was incredulous that his eyes should be welling up. He blamed it on the antiseptic stink that permeated everything here. If you live long enough, you get to see it all. You get to survive your spouse, end up in a home, and find your nadir.
It took clever planning to come up with a way to kill himself in a place with no guns, no beams in the ceiling, and that was not cliff-side adjacent. Drug overdose was the logical approach, but they didn’t just leave the meds out where you could waltz over and pick some up. Furthermore, you had to do your research. The few things that could kill you were nestled in among meds that would just give you the craps, a raging headache, or an 8-hour boner.
Cray had, nonetheless, mounted his most skillful tactical infiltration since he was in France in ’42 and ‘43. He ditched the bottle so that when they found him they wouldn’t immediately know how to determine an antidote. One of his hands was full of little white tablets, and he had his big cup of water at the ready. He took a deep breath. It was time to get on with it before they discovered the missing meds and the lock-down began.
“Hi… Mr. Cray, can I talk to you?” He looked over. There was a young girl, high school-aged, standing in the doorway.
“About what?” Cray said sternly.
“Uhh… I’m doing a report… for AP World History on World War II in France, and the librarian helped me find you…. You were there, right?” She said, her nerves subsiding as she spoke.
“Yeah, I was there alright.”
“What did you do during the war?”
“I kil…” He started to say that he killed Nazis, but realized he wouldn’t want anyone answering his own daughter that way. Furthermore, the plural made it a lie. He’d killed one Nazi. He’d killed a couple more who were just dumb young kids, like himself, fighting for their country and not knowing what they hell they were doing. He might have killed more by stray fire, but those three were the only ones of which he was aware. They were plenty enough.
“I… uhh… helped provide security for things being moved around behind enemy lines.”
“What kinds of things?” She asked, looking at him directly for once. But when he looked her straight in the eyes, she averted her gaze once more.
“People, weapons, explosives, information, and about anything else that has value in war.”
“Did you ever get shot?”
“Not precisely speaking, no.” He said, but punctuated his words by pulling up the cuff on one of his pant legs. There were two mounds of scar tissue, one about four inches long and the other about three.
“I got hit by some grenade fragments.”
“How’d that happen?”
“I was walking point on patrol. I saw the damn… sorry… the grenade land just a few feet in front ahead of me. It was one of those Nazi grenades with the wooden handle attached to a canister. Anyway, I leapt behind a tree, but my legs were sticking out and got hit. If it weren’t for that tree, I’d have been a goner.” His tone became reflective and somber.
“Wow! That sure was lucky.” The girl was getting caught up with enthusiasm.
“For me.” He said. This time it was he who averted his gaze.
“What do you mean?”
“The guy behind me, Baker, got hit right in the neck with shrapnel. He bled… He didn’t make it.”
There was a pause. It was sort of an impromptu moment of silence for Baker.
“Did you ever kill anyone?” She asked in the serious and respectful manner that a boy her age would never give the question.
He just shook his head in the affirmative.
She knew not to press for details, and changed the subject.
“How long were you in France?”
“A year and a half.”
“Was it pretty?”
He thought a moment. Others might relegate the question to the absurd. It was, after all, a war zone. But it was the perfect question to ask someone who was there. A person who was there didn’t have the black-and-white perspective one gets from history books.
“Sometimes it was. I remember the sun setting over the vineyards… the colors were… indescribable… so vivid… like some alien world. Other times it was not. There were cities of charred rubble, and the stink of death and cordite stung your nose….”
“Did you save any holocaust victims?”
“No… I never got that far East…. Not directly anyway, I’d like to think…” He let the comment trail off, but she seemed to understand.
The conversation continued for the better part of an hour and a half.
“Oh. Wow! I’ve got to get home, can I come back next week to talk more?” She said seeing the clock on the wall
He paused and reflected a hard moment. “Sure, why not?”
The girl trotted off, her pony-tail swaying behind her.
Cray got up and went to the bathroom. He wiped the partially dissolved tablets stuck to his hand into the toilet. As he flushed and washed his hands, he said to himself, “Ain’t that a bitch.”