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Friends for an Hour
The first ten minutes of the last hour of my life were spent in silence.
It was that awkward silence you have around someone you have just met whom you know you’re going to be around for a while, like a roommate or step-sibling. The kind of silence that rises like a wall and suffocates sound and thought, so you’re stuck trying to think of something meaningful and interesting to say, because if you don’t you’re in for a long night.
The guy who was with me was named Malcolm but called Blink. He looked about nineteen, like me, probably fresh out of high school and drafted into the infantry, the front lines, most likely scared shitless. Like me. He was medium height, medium build, brown hair. Nothing interesting, really, except for the glasses. These glasses were curved and thick and kept slipping down his nose as he looked up out of our trench into the starry night.
I wondered vaguely what he was thinking, seeing me for the first time. Did he know, from my appearance, that the reason I had waited to be drafted into this damn war was because it had already taken my older brother? Did he know that back home there was a girl with a smile sweet enough to make bees hum, and that she said she’d wait for me? Did he know that my mom had cried rivers as she watched me get on the bus, but that my dad hadn’t been there at all?
In the end, the silence ended simply enough. “Hey,” I muttered, quiet, knowing that at any moment war could literally break out. “You hungry?”
Blink looked at me, and from the light of the moon and the stars, plump and full above the trench we were both sitting in, I saw him nod.
I rummaged in my back pocket for the stick of gum I always kept there for emergencies. Before this, the term “emergency” meant hearing my stomach grumble in third period Trig. Now the gum was as appetizing as my mom’s Sunday chicken. Gallantly, I broke the piece in half, holding it out to him as an olive branch for friendship.
Blink took it, nodded. I could hear his dog tags jingle for a second before he put the gum in his mouth.
The silence continued more comfortably. I had learned a couple of things from the army. Don’t let your gun get wet. Always say sir, even if you don’t know exactly who you’re addressing. A piece of gum was enough to forge a friendship, because they were usually fleeting occurrences. In the morning, next week, next month, the person you shared that gum with would be dead, and only you and a few other people would be left behind to remember them.
I shivered, though it wasn’t cold. Blink looked at me strangely, almost protectively. I twitched my head, indicating I wasn’t hurt but continued shake. Back at boot camp there had been an enormous wall commemorating people who had died in this goddamned war. It was a bulletin board hodgepodge of call names, photos, prayers, poems. I had gone there once, to tack up a picture of my brother so somebody else might remember him. I’d ended up spending four hours there with the dead.
There was this one part that really stuck out. A list, hand-written, titled How Many It Took and a row of names: Chuckles, Racetrack, Starbuck, Sprinkles, Boomer, Gramps….there are more, a lot more, spreading over many sheets of paper. I memorized some of them, because I think somebody had to, and added my brother Joey (Timex) to the series. Maybe somebody will memorize his name one day.
The sounds of planes made me tense up and grip my gun tighter. Blink’s hands mirrored mine as he scanned the skies worriedly. After a few seconds of silence I forced my muscles to relax, though the grip on the gun stayed firm.
“You have to wonder what we’ve done to get those reflexes.” Blink mused, and I looked at him, surprised. Up until then I hadn’t hear him say more than “yes, sir.” His voice was surprisingly deep, with a Northern sophistication to it that far surpassed my Southern twang.
I nodded, smirked some, leaned back into the ditch. Damn tremors. My entire body was at it now and the gun in my hands shook. I closed my eyes, took a deep, shuddering, aching breath, opened them again. I cursed, realizing the shivering had stayed.
Blink stared at me pityingly, then with one hand motioned me closer. I squirmed, eyes still cast upward, staring, waiting for all Hell to break loose. I ended up right next to Blink, our shoulders almost touching, near enough to feel him breathe.
It’s weird, but that sound of him breathing really calmed me down. The shaking almost left except for a few stubborn quakes that continued to rock my body. There was a hesitant second before Blink put his hand on my arm where he looked straight at me, asking for permission. I nodded a little and we connected.
“What’s your name?” His voice reminded me of Joey but for some reason remembering my brother like that didn’t make me want to bawl like a baby. It made me smile, just a twitch of the lips.
“Radar.” I muttered, almost apologetic. My nickname had come from a TV show called MASH which I had only ever seen once or twice before. Radar, the character on the show, could tell when helicopters were coming in before anyone else. My specialty was supply trucks, so it’s easy to see why it had become a kind of running joke.
“Your real name.” I looked up; saw the side of Blink’s head silhouetted in the moon and stars and spotlights of the planes. It had been a long time since anyone had used my real name. It just didn’t matter while we were stuck here. I licked my sore, swollen lips, wished for some chap stick, and answered, “Randy.” Another bomb whistled towards Earth, slightly closer than the others.
Blink smiled, lips tight, his eyes still focused on the heavens. “Randy. That’s almost funny. Back home….or I hope he’s still back home, I haven’t gotten any letters for a while….back home I have a brother. Ralph. He’s near your age. Nineteen, right?”
I nodded. He was older than I’d pegged him for. “I’ve been telling him to stay out of this, but he’s one of those patriotic types, you know? Kind of protective, too. Me and him used to get into a lot of trouble together. I know he worries about me. Thinks I can’t handle myself out here. You understand how brothers are.” He looked at me and I felt as if he knew. Was it possible that anyone knew about Joey? I hadn’t told a soul. It wasn’t worth it, bringing up the past.
We waited together, his hand on my arm. There was noise above us, probably the unfortunate kids who’d pulled for patrol. They hadn’t started fighting, not tonight. You’d know when fighting began. More often than not we didn’t even come out of our trenches at night, just lay there for the hours before dawn, tense and waiting, sometimes able to get quick forty-minute catnaps between the bombs and calls and planes. Mostly, though, I just went without sleep. Better to be bone tired the next morning than dead, right? But I was one of the more paranoid ones.
Maybe Blink saw how nervous I still was. Maybe he was getting homesick or whatever, but he started talking about his brother; told me everything about him. That this kid looked a little like me, tall and dark-haired, though his wasn’t curly. He had glasses, too, like Blink’s. Before I knew it I was chiming in, not talking about Joey but about Brooke, the girl waiting for me at home.
“Never seen a girl like her. I’ve known her since we were…eight? Nine?” I stopped for a second, thinking of my Brooke. It’s always been like that with us; she was always supposed to be just mine. “Brooke and me, we had our whole future planned out. I was going to be a pastor. Weird, right? She had her heart set on being a pastor’s wife and a momma.” I looked for more words to describe her and couldn’t find any. “She…she looks real good in yellow.”
“You miss her?”
“Like you wouldn’t believe.”
To admit homesickness was almost to concede defeat, to become a coward. I tensed, awaiting Blink’s reaction. He surprised me by sliding his hand up my arm to my shoulder, resting it there. I glanced at him, found he was looking at me instead of the stars, grinned.
It was a year after Joey’s death, I was thousands of miles from my Georgia home, sitting in enemy territory, playing a waiting game with troops and tanks and snipers. In that place, at the very moment I met Blink’s eyes under the star fields of the god-forsaken country, I let go of my dead brother. All the negative feelings I harbored after his death of betrayal, guilt, a thirst for revenge left. The sour taste of bitterness was replaced with a growing sense of relief, of security.
Blink’s hand moved again, this time from my shoulder to my head. He grabbed a spring of curly hair peeking from beneath the helmet and pulled gently, playfully. I automatically swatted the hand away and our eyes connected again. His were filmy and wet even as he smiled.
“’Lo, Randy.” He murmured. I knew that, though he’d said my name, he was thinking Ralph.
“Hey, Malcolm.” I replied, seeing Joey.
His hand stayed where it was, a piece of my hair twined around it, as another bomb flew from the sky and landed on our heads, making the world succumb to darkness.