THE NICK OF TIME

He chanced upon the blurb a week later. Five or six sentences buried deep in the daily. David Bradford had been there for a while. Housekeeping had noticed the smell. A note had been found. A toxicology report would be forthcoming. He was twenty-six.

He’d been asleep for nineteen hours straight, and it might have been for more, had the persistent ringing not reeled him in from the deepest depths of sleep.

“Hello … Lieutenant? … Hello? … hey, it’s me, Apple … hello?”

“Apple?” Clay groaned through the fog of confusion. “Where … what’s going on?” Clay blinked till he could keep his eyes open.

“Heard you were back in town. How you and the boys doing?”

Clay reached for the remote and turned off the TV, taking in the aftermath of the drunken destructive rage that had finally fizzled in the onslaught of a hypnotizing dose of infomercials and evangelists. “Hang on a sec.” Clay got up and stupefied by the realization that he had wet himself, tripped over something on his way to the bathroom.

“You okay LT?”

“Sorry bout that … What’s up?”

“Just checking in. How are you and the boys doing?”

“Could be better. Lost a couple of guys … IED ambush on a convoy.”

“Oh shoot.”

“I’m back in town for mom’s funeral.”

“What? Gosh, I’m sorry Lieutenant.”

“Yeah. Thanks.”

“I only met her that once, but she seemed real nice.” Apple paused. “You got your hands full LT. Let me check you some other time.”

“No man … go ahead. What’s going on?”

“Thing is, I’d rather not talk on the phone.” Apple giggled nervously. “I know that sounds creepy but–“

“Let’s grab some burgers at Jack’s. What time is it? I’ll see you … 1600 work for you?”

Jack’s was empty when Clay arrived. He picked a corner where he could sit with his back to the wall, ordered a beer and downed it. He popped a pill with a sip of water, ordered another beer, then swiveled to look down the familiar length of the diner … at the faded cherry red of the padded booths, the glow of neon on community memorabilia, the burbling aquarium and darting guppies. The place smelled the same. Nothing had changed.

Apple walked in through a jangle of door chimes, breaking into a smile when he saw Clay.

“I know. I look like shit.”

“Hell no.” Clay grabbed him for a hug, but overcome by the rank, broke free sooner than the moment may have merited.

Apple stepped back and pointed. “What happened to your arm?”

“Burnt it up a bit. No big deal. Sit down. How the hell are you?”

Apple’s eyes dropped to the menu. He stared for a moment at his reflection in the plastic cover. “I’m good,” he said grinning, tossing the menu onto the counter. “I know what I’m having.”

“Two specials. And a two more of these,” Clay said tapping the bottle.

Apple raised his hand. “Just coffee for me.” He coughed. “I’m sorry about your crew. Dang. And your mom. What happened?”

“Car accident. She was drunk.” Clay took a sip of his beer. “Luckily she didn’t kill anyone.” They sat watching the cook season then drop four patties onto the flat top next to strips of thick-cut bacon. White curls began to twist up into the hood.

“Who died in the hit? Anybody I know?”

“Guys from after your time.” Clay ran a hand through his hair and he was there again. He saw the helicopters, low on fuel, banking away from the convoy, a file of twenty fuel tankers stretching out over a mile. They were on their own now, but in the still of the breaking desert dawn less than twenty klicks from home base the worst seemed behind them. The men who had been quiet, broke radio silence with jabs about mothers, sisters, pussy and food.

“Gentlemen, would you shut the fuck up. Keep your eyes, ears and everything between your ears on the mission. We are not yet home,” barked Clay into his headset. But he too allowed himself a smile.

“Hey LT, you sure you don’t want me to drive?”

“Nah Gomez, I got it.”

“What ever you say LT.” Gomez yawned, then added, “It’s been an honor serving under you, Sir.”

“Your last convoy, eh Gomez?”

“Affirmative. This time next week, I’ll be barbecuing with my girls.”

“Make sure you slap on a thick steak for me.”

Seconds later the sequence of events that would set the stage for what would later be referred to as heroics were triggered when a calloused finger, nail thick, cracked, and black with grime, depressed the SEND button on a Finnish cell phone, assembled in Malaysia, bought in a Kuwaiti bazaar, powered by Chinese batteries, fitted with a SIM card roaming on a German wireless network, that connected to a second device wired to detonators of Pakistani origin, fused to a series of unexploded ordinance manufactured by a North Carolinian defense contractor, and that in this totality made up the buried IED that would, God willing, detonate with a vehicle directly over it.

Clay felt the explosion and then saw the road burst open or was it that he saw the road burst open and then heard the explosion. Was there even any sound? Had he really seen anything? He would have all the time in the world to contemplate looped variants of this visual superimposed on his thoughts in the years to come. What he knew was that blue flames tailing a big wind rushed in. That his chin slammed into his chest as his stomach sank to his knees. That acid rushed up his throat as the Humvee was catapulted thirty feet into the air to pirouette silently, beautifully one could even say were it not for the horror, in slow motion through delicate parabolic swirls of sand and asphalt, before it came down crashing on its side. He did not know that three of his ribs had snapped when his Kevlar encased torso rammed into the vehicle’s center console. He was also unaware that the explosion’s compressive waves had accelerated through his brain’s density, ripping synapses apart, permanently deleting a random selection of long-term memories. He didn’t know that two more IEDs had gone off. What he did know, when he could finally see through the settling dust, was that Gunny was dead. It was all a giant crap shoot. Bend over to pick something up, you lived. Turn back to get something you forgot, you died. Sit in the driver’s seat you lived.

Clay was talking to Apple now, the tale exploding out of him in vivid, but confused shards. He struggled to get the chronology right, to piece together the significance of it all. Frustrated, he turned to Apple, just sitting there, hands wrapped around his cup of coffee. Was he even listening? Clay noticed circular burn scars dotting the back of Apple’s hands. He shoved Apple in the arm.

“Enough about me. What’s going on with you?”

“I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining after all you’ve been through. But truth be told, LT, it ain’t bin a cake walk. How long has it been since I last saw you?”

“Coming up on the tail end of my second tour … so almost four years.”

“No way José! Four years already? It sure is good to see you again LT.” Apple took a noisy sip of coffee. “Jenny and I split up. Actually she left me. Can’t say I blame her. Expected everything would get back to normal, except it didn’t. Got to a point where I was banging her around pretty bad. Cops got involved. Bad scene–really bad scene.” Apple dropped three sugar cubes into his cup. “Everything pisses me off.” His spoon rattled around his cup. “She got custody of Sam and the little one. She got the house too. I don’t give a rat’s ass about that.” He paused. “I still get to see the kids.” Apple dropped another cube into his coffee. “But they’re scared of me.”

Apple’s moniker had come to be in a memorable display of raw courage, or, depending on who told the tale, of sheer stupidity one bright, sunny, blue sky afternoon patrol in Tikrit. He’d given into a sudden craving for fruit, and zigzagged across a marked mine-field to pick a knapsack full of the reddest, crunchiest, sweetest apples the parched squad had ever bitten into. Clay was waiting for him at the edge of the field and started by knocking the sack of fruit out of his hands. He’d yelled at him, shoved him, slapped him, but in the crazed hollering celebrating the triumph, his rage would not stick. In the end, even Clay had to laugh. It was one of the many surreal instances where the absurdity of the moment trumped the rules. As if the extremes they faced, meant that sometimes it did not matter what went down, just that they were still alive. The mood had been upbeat for the rest of the day.

“I hit the sauce pretty bad. Got arrested a few times. Shit, I don’t even have a driver’s license no more.” Apple clawed away at a migrating and persistent itch. “Not that I have a car, but still. I’ve been on the streets for almost a year.” He shook his head. “Can’t get a job, cause I can’t fucking predict when I’m going to sleep.” Apple laughed. “I tried the pills, but honestly? I’d rather not sleep. No sleep, no dreams. Isn’t that something? A United States Marine Corp veteran, out on the streets, afraid of sleep.” Apple lit a cigarette, took a deep drag, coughed violently, then said, “I stopped by my sister’s house the other day. Get this … there we are shooting the breeze in her sunny kitchen when suddenly I hear gunshots … I hit the deck … turns out it’s just her kids popping bubble wrap.” The corner of his mouth shook. “You should have seen the look on my Dad’s face. He thinks I’m on drugs.”

“Your pop served in Vietnam?”

Apple nodded. “Airborne.”

“What about the VA? Did you file for disability?”

“The goddamn VA has been telling me that the Corps got no record of my tour in Iraq. They declined my PTSD claim because my DD-214 doesn’t show that I spent anytime deployed overseas. Or maybe it’s cause I was classified as a mechanic on the roster. You know that I did convoys and a shit load of other combat duties.”

Apple had been there, front and center with everyone else, when Hutchings took a piece of shrapnel in the jugular, and bled out a gurgling, spumy death. He was also there when Santos took a direct hit from an RPG, leaving remains that barely filled half a body bag.

“No records? Not possible.”

“No one knows, but there’s talk that they were destroyed when the battalion left Iraq. I’m not the only one with this problem. I’ve heard lots of stories. Remember McFee in Purchasing? He told me that orders to purge the servers came from way high up. Thinks that’s when everything disappeared.”

“I don’t get it. I filed hundreds of field reports for our squad.”

“That’s what I keep arguing. Actually, I don’t argue no more. VA hospitals stink of death. I can’t step into them. Jenny’s waging this battle, bless her. CNN says they got a back-log of more than eight hundred thousand disability claims. Joke is that if you don’t have PTSD when you get to the VA, you will when you’re done dealing with them.” He paused. “Can’t believe she’s sticking up for me after all the shit I put her through. She’s pissed.” Apple tapped the edge of his cup gesturing for more coffee. “She tells me I need a statement from my CO, confirming where I was, and what I experienced.” He dug into his pocket and handed Clay a wad the size of a matchbox. “I made some notes.” Clay unfolded the paper carefully. The creases were scarred and torn. He realized that there was little in the scribbles, lines, and numbers that he could decipher. He folded up the sheet and put it in his pocket.

“How about you? Signing up for another tour? I’d do anything to go back. But look at me now. I’d reenlist, but they won’t take me. What was that bit that went viral? Too trapped in war to be at peace and too damaged to be at war. That’s me.” Apple took a sip of his coffee. “At least that’s what everybody tells me is me. I miss the boys. Miss the hanging. The fighting. Believe it or not, I even miss the crappy food.” Apple ran both hands through his hair, pulling the tangled strands back tight. “But you know what scares me the most?” he said laughing mirthlessly. “How am I going to be a father to my kids?”

The cook plated the burgers and set them down before the men. Apple pulled out a cigarette and lit it. He turned to Clay. Their eyes met. Apple spoke. “That goddamn ten year old,” he whispered, choking on the number as tears streamed down his face. Clay pulled Apple into his arms and held him close until the sobbing stopped. “God may one day forgive me for what I have done, but I will never forgive myself.”

“Let it go,” Clay said, “It wasn’t your fault. You gotta let it go.”

Apple nodded, brought his sleeve to his face and took in a deep breath. He put out his cigarette. Then he stacked the slices of tomato and onion on the burger, spread ketchup and mustard on the bun and picked at a few fries. He smiled. He bit into Jack’s Famous Bacon Double–N-Cheese. He bit deep. Deep into the meaty tang that brought him to where he could never be again. When it was time to leave, Apple reached for his pocket as if to pay. Clay put some bills on the counter. “I got this one.”

“Thanks LT.  Hey, I was wondering LT …”

Clay counted out five twenties and slid the money over to Apple.

“Thanks LT. I appreciate that.” Apple stuffed the bills into his pocket. “Actually I was wondering … you got any meds?” then added quickly, “I lost my prescription.”

Clay reached into his pocket, pulled out his bottle of pills, and tipped the contents into Apple’s open palm.

“Oh … the good stuff. Thanks LT.”

Clay got up. Apple rose quickly, stood up straight and saluted smartly.

Clay returned the salute. “You take care of yourself Corporal Bradford.”