Some time ago, I promised all of you a new short story to coincide with the release of After Hours republish, along with a shameless plug for my book. All I gave you was the shameless plug and no short story.
I am correcting that now. Please read and enjoy College Money or tell me why you didn’t enjoy it.
I am still learning the line phase. If you copy and paste the link, it will work.
If anyone wishes a PDF version, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
It is a period in time, a man made device used to quantify a series of events. It has no real meaning. Its importance is in the perception of those who in the midst of it. Eighteen months can be a very short time (a child that dies an eighteen months) or it can be a very long time (a man has just been sentenced to eighteen months in jail). Eighteen is a number and is very definitive. It is the number between nineteen and twenty. That will never change. That is not subjective. When applied to time, though, it becomes subjective, very subjective indeed. Is eighteen months a very long time or a very short time?
For Ted Douglass, it was a very long time. Stuck in the middle of a country filled with sand and strange language, defending an idea (freedom) that most of the people around him did not begin to understand, living every single day with the knowledge that he could be killed by some deranged fool in the name of Allah, eighteen months was a long time.
It is a very long time indeed.
The military transport had taken him as far as the base just outside of San Antonio. From there the plane had taken him to Nashville, a long way from everywhere he had been in the last eighteen months, a long way from all the things he had been forced to do in order to get back to where had started from.
Ted! Oh my God! Ted, I’m hit!
Fire your weapon, private! What are you waiting for! Fire the fucking weapon!
No matter how many times it went through his head – thousands in the last few months – it always ended the same. Daniel Keegan was on the ground with half his damned leg blown off. The sergeant, Keith Morris had dived in on top of Keegan to keep him from taking further fire. Ted dropped to his knees, leveled his weapon and prepared to fire.
Fire your goddamned weapon, private!
It was only the slightest of hesitations, a blip in time, hardly even worth mentioning. Faced with fire for the first time ever – all the training be damned – Ted had frozen for just a split second.
A split second is all it took for the enemy to get off another volley. It was aimed for Ted, who was kneeling with his rifle in the firing position, but the volley missed its mark. It found Sergeant Morris instead. Found him in his arm, his leg, and three times in the neck. It found him enough, more than enough.
After that, private Ted Douglass fired his goddamned weapon. He fired it five times. He had been excellent on the firing range. He hit his target every time, every time then, every time now. The attacker did not survive.
He had been in the danger zone for less than a week when it happened. The enemy always seemed to know when the newbees were in the patrol. The chances of a successful attack went up considerably when the veterans were training in a greenhorn. Ted Douglass could not argue with the strategy. As a result of his first time out, Daniel Keegan went home with only a stump for a left leg. Sergeant Morris went home in a box with a flag draped over it. Ted was left in a unit that knew how he had failed with another eighteen months to serve. The twelve-year old kid who had instigated the whole carnage got his deranged wish to meet Allah. Six bullets from Ted’s gun had seen to that.
The commanding officers had been very kind to Ted and that was probably the wrong thing to do. They had tried to reassure him that this single moment would not define his service. The enemy liked to recruit kids just for this very reason. Everyone who is not emotionally dead inside will hesitate to shoot a kid.
None of the pep talks helped, though. There was too much on his mind for a simple pep talk to heal. He had a life to live, a life that would never be the same.
A half a second’s worth of hesitation and eighteen months to think about all that had gone wrong. Eternity could not have seemed longer.
Now, though, it was over. Thank God, it was finally over. The memories would be there in the back of his mind until the day he died, but the minute he stepped onto the military plane that would take him home he understood that he had been given the chance to rebuild his life. The person he had been died the day he killed the kid. A new person was born, a person he didn’t know existed, a person he even know could exist. Now he could go home and see if there was anything left of the young man who had joined the army for the college money less than two years ago.
“I want to thank you for your service.”
College money! Is that what I did this for?
“Sir? Did you hear me?”
The young woman’s voice snapped Ted out of his trance. He looked at her, smiled meekly, and wondered if this is what the rest of his life was going to be like, just one trance after another? Was a mere thirty second span of time – and his failure within it – going to define him? He had been lost in this trance…how long? The last thing he clearly remembered was taking off in Texas. Sometime after that, in the fog, someone delivered him a beer courtesy of one of the passengers. He didn’t really remember drinking it, but later someone picked up the empty can.
“Thanks, miss,” he said. “I really appreciate it.”
“You know,” she said. Her eyes were bright and bubbly. “I have missed my connecting flight. My next one is not until tomorrow. I would love to buy you a drink.”
She was young – twenty-three or four – and very attractive. He couldn’t tell from the look in her eye if a drink was all she had in mind or if there was something more. It was of no matter to him. He had other plans for the night. In a tiny singlewide- trailer, on six acres of land that, thanks to his military service, he now owned free and clear, Carla awaited his return.
“That is very generous of you, miss,” he said. “If the circumstances were different, it would be an honor to share a couple of drinks with you. However, my wife is waiting. I have been gone for eighteen months.”
“I am sorry,” she said with a frown. “I mean, I just, didn’t see a ring. I checked first.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “I left the ring behind. If anything happened to me, I didn’t want the ring to come home to her in a sealed bag with dog tags and such.”
“Eighteen months,” the girl said. “She is going to be very happy to see you!”
‘Yeah,” he said. “I hope so. I have set it all up as a surprise.”
“She doesn’t know?” she asked with a gasp. “She is gonna be so mad at you for not telling her! She is gonna want to have been all dressed up for you, make up, hair, everything. If you come home and she is in sweats with her hair in a ponytail, she will be mad.”
“You think?” Ted asked. “I don’t know. Carla was always one for surprises.”
“Well,” the girl said. “I don’t think it will ruin the evening or anything.”
The plane taxied in and came to a stop. Like someone rang a bell every passenger sitting in the aisle seat hopped to his feet. The overhead compartments flew open. The girl stopped talking, stood up, and Ted drifted back into his trance world once again. This time, though, for the first time in forever, he was not thinking about Iraq or a twelve year old boy that had gone to meet Allah thanks to a well-placed automatic rifle burst. He was thinking of Carla.
When he walked through the terminal and into the lobby on the front side of security he could almost see them standing there, arms around each other in a death grip, eighteen months earlier.
“Oh, baby,” he said, holding her. “I guess I didn’t realize how hard this was going to be.”
“It won’t be that bad,” she said, trying to be brave and positive. She choked on her tears as she said. “Oh, honey, I am going to miss you so much!”
“Me, too,” he said. He stepped back from her, slid his ring from his finger and handed to her. She looked at him in shock. “No, no. It’s not what you think. Nobody is gonna lay a hand on this body again for eighteen months. I just want you to keep it here. Just something to remember me by.”
“Okay,” she said. “And I will be here for you when you get back. I will be a virgin again by then.”
“Me, too,” he said. “That means we will explode in passion for about fifteen seconds.”
They had both laughed at that, laughed to mask their tears and pain. Standing there now seeing an image of eighteen months ago in his head, Ted was trying to remember if he had laughed since then. If he had, he couldn’t remember. Would he laugh again? If he did, would he really mean it?
How could he mean it after what he had been forced to do? It was just a boy, a young, teachable, misguided boy with an automatic rifle. The rifle had come from nowhere and sprayed death upon them.
“Where in the hell did he even have the rifle?” Ted murmured under his breath. “The thing was bigger than he was.”
“I am sorry, sir,” someone said. “Did you say something?”
He came to his senses once again, this time to the monotonous sound of the luggage carousel going around and around, carrying bags to the passengers who had just gotten off the plane. Standing next to him was an older lady, perhaps someone’s grandmother or great-grandmother. He looked at her sheepishly, not realizing he had said anything aloud.
“I am sorry, ma’am,” he said with forced smile. “I didn’t realize I had said anything. I guess I am a bit distracted.”
“That’s quite alright,” she said. She nodded to the uniform. “How long have you been away?”
“Around a year and a half,” he said with another forced smile.
“Well, I want to thank you for what you have done!” she said.
Thank me for what? Keeping the world safe from twelve-year-old Jihaddists? He was a little boy, for crying out loud!
What he was thinking in his head must have played like a movie all over his face. The woman read it right away.
“I have seen that look before,” she said. “It was all over my husband’s face when he got back, the guilt over what he had done. I just want you to know that you have nothing to be ashamed of.”
Really, lady? How in the hell would you know that? I killed a little boy! Just because someone says its okay, doesn’t make it right!
The lady at the carousel read him once more. It was like she was a cleric with some unnatural gift for reading people.
“I’ve seen that look, too,” she said. “The one that says it is impossible to know what I have gone through. I used to get that all the time from my husband. I ignored it. I worked through it with him. If it makes any difference, when my husband got home, he landed in hostile territory, which was the United States in the late sixties, a time when America seemed to have lost its mind. He came through the airport, just like you, in his fatigues. He was, just like you, worn out and burdened by what he had been asked to do for his country, proud to have done his duty, but glad it was over. He wasn’t hit once by enemy fire, but he was forever scared. There was no one waiting at the airport to thank him, though, for all he had sacrificed. There was only a half dozen doped up hippies who encircled him the minute he came through the terminal. One of them spit on him. Another called him a baby burner! That was his thanks.”
Ted knew she was trying to help. To that end, he was polite.
“If you said thank you or spit on me,” he said. “I don’t think it would matter than much. I killed a little boy. He was twelve. He just came out of nowhere and started shooting. I had to kill him.”
“It must have been horrible,” she said.
“It was,” he agreed. “But it wasn’t the most horrible part. No! The most horrible part is that I didn’t kill him fast enough. Does that make any sense? What kind of a world do we live in where it is wrong to not kill a little boy fast enough?”
“What did you say?”
It was a different voice this time. For the thousandth time since he left Iraq and stepped on a plane home, he came out of a trance. This time he was alone. He was in the airport, the carousel was still spinning, but there were only a few pieces of luggage left. He saw his duffle bag inching its way towards him. There was a young man, maybe eighteen standing beside him.
“I am sorry,” Ted said. “I guess I was daydreaming.”
“Is that yours?” the young man asked. He was pointing to duffle bag.
“Yes,” Ted said. “That’s mine.”
“You been to Afghanistan?” the young man asked.
“Iraq,” Ted said.
“I thought that war was over,” the boy said.
“The war is over,” Ted agreed. “The clean up is a long ways from being over.”
“Did you kill anybody?” the young man asked again.
“No, kid,” he lied. “I didn’t kill anyone”
The kid’s face twisted into a look of admonishment. Disdain ran on its heels.
“What did you even go for, then?” the young man asked.
“College money,” Ted said.
The young man made a sound of disgust and asked, “What the hell kind of reason is that?”
“I don’t know,” Ted replied as he reached down to pick up his duffle bag. “It made sense at the time. It wasn’t like we were at war or anything!”
He was in his living room now, his living room of eighteen months ago. He was sitting on the edge of the sofa, his wife, his lovely Carla, in the recliner. Her face was flushed with hot, sticky tears, her eyes red and swollen. The eyes looked far away, past the thin walls of their trailer, into a place only she knew. She was sitting on the edge as well, in more ways than one, rocking back and forth in the recliner. It was a slow, deliberate rocking, steady and…angry. She kept shaking her head back and forth, a head shaking of disbelief.
“I can’t believe you did this without even asking me,” she said. “How could you do this without asking me first? This is not your life or my life! It is our life! Damn you for not asking me first! Damn you!”
Ted was drinking a beer, the first of what would no doubt be many before the night was over. This was only the beginning of the fight. No, actually fight was not the exact word. The word fight implied that something was at stake, that there was something to gain or lose in the conflict. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The truth was that Carla had a reason to be mad – mad as hell. She had every reason to spit in his very face and walk out the door. She had every reason because on that morning, without asking her anything, he signed the paper work and became a member of the United States Army. Basic training began in three weeks.
“Look, baby,” he said. “I had to do it. I had to do it for us!”
“For US? Are you out of your ever-loving mind? There was no US in this decision!” she screamed at him. In a fit of anger, she reached out and slapped the beer out of his hand. It landed against the wall, slid down to the floor, and then rolled down the hall pouring itself out as it went. “This was all about you!”
Ted looked at his empty hand, and then headed for the refrigerator. He was slow and methodical in his steps, slow and methodical in his breathing as he recouped another beer from the bottom shelf. She had every right to be angry and to not understand why he had done what he had done. He would explain it to her in a calm and reasoned manner. No matter how mad she got, he would explain it to her in a calm, reasoned manner.
“I know you don’t believe me,” he said. “But everything I did today, I did for you.”
“How can you say that?” Carla demanded. “How can you say that you are doing all of this for me when what you are doing is going to take me away from you for…a long time?”
He opened his beer and took his seat again. He sat the beer down beside him and then knelt before her, a proposal stance, and cupped her hands in his. His eyes pleaded with her to understand why he had joined.
“First of all, basic training is not until three weeks away,” he said. “It only lasts a few short weeks – thirteen, I think! Then I get a break, a furlough for a few weeks before I get my assignment. I get base housing if I want. You can be with me while I am there. We are not going to be apart all that long!”
“What about the house?” she asked. “Who will take care of it?”
“I have already talked to Bobby,” he said. “My brother needs a place to stay for awhile, you since the break up. I have asked him to look out for it, keep it up. You know he is really good at fixing things.”
“I don’t want to live on a military base!” she said. “I want to live in our home, the one we bought together. That is what I want!”
“We will!” he said. “We will I promise. In just a few years from now, we will! I only signed up for four years. The money I got as a bonus will pay off this land and trailer. It will make it ours, not something we get to live in as long as we keep the bank happy. Then, when I get out, I will have enough money to go to college, to get a degree, to make something out of myself.”
Carla had cut her eyes at him accusingly.
“That is what this is really about then? The money? I don’t care about the money!”
“Well, I do!” he snapped. He leapt off his feet and, for the second time in five minutes, a beer landed against the wall and went rolling down the hall. “You had everything before you married me! You were rich! Marrying me took all that away! I don’t why your parents don’t like me, but they don’t! I am grateful that you chose loving me over the money, but it doesn’t mean that I am going to let you do without for the rest of your life. I will get it back for you! To do that, I need to go to college. No one is going to pay some tobacco farmer enough money to ever own anything other than a trailer. I have to get an education!”
Maybe realizing that his joining was something of a selfless act, her eyes softened, but softened only a little bit. There were still a few questions that she needed answered. He thought he had the answers to those questions. Too late would he find that he did not the answers; he didn’t have any answers at all.
“The army is in the business of making war,” she said. “That is the only reason an army exists at all. How can you promise me that you will not end up in some protracted, drawn out conflict?”
“Hell, I can’t promise you that,” he said. “I can’t promise you that I won’t get hit by a car or die from a disease I didn’t even know I had. But I know the world today. There is no chance of anything major happening. There is no Vietnam on the horizon. There is no way we are going into some country for a protracted amount of time.”
“But we are at war!” she said. “The terrorist tried to kill us all on 911. They are at war with us!”
“Ah, come on,” he said. “It is not a real war! I mean, hell, we took down the Taliban in nothing flat. Then, we took down a whole damned country like it was nothing. We ended combat in Iraq quicker than it takes most people to plan a wedding…or get out of one. I will never end up over there unless I want to be there. That is what they told me!”
“Do you really think they mean that?” she asked. “Did they give you some kind of a guarantee?”
“No,” he said. “Any kind of promise they made wouldn’t be worth the paper it’s printed on anyway. But the situation in the world is stable right now. Our army is just one big computer screen. We deleted the Taliban. Then we deleted Sadaam. There is nothing to worry about!”
The next thing his mind knew he was in the parking garage at Nashville BNA. He held no concept of coming through the terminal or down the escalator where to the baggage claim. When had he picked up his duffle bag and the roll around suitcase the followed dutifully behind him? He held no memory of it. The concept of his life was once more very bleak. Was he to snap out of his war one day and find he was seventy-five years old? Would he come to on his deathbed just in time to say goodbye to family and friends he had scarcely known for the three decades since returning home from Iraq?
He checked the skies outside the parking structure and saw nothing but sun and no clouds. It was a little disappointing. After eighteen months of near nonstop sunny skies with no clouds, a rain cloud would have been a welcomed sight. He lifted his bags into the bed of Jasper Nelson’s pickup. Their conversation a week earlier trickled through his mind.
“Ted? Is that really you?” Jasper asked.
Ted could tell Jasper was in a fog, probably a whiskey induced fog. Ted made the call at five am on Saturday morning. Jasper took the call at nine pm on Friday night. Friday night was poker night. Poker is best played with a steady flow of drinks. At least that is what Jasper always thought. That is why Ted always took his money. After six or seven drinks, Jasper thought every hand was a winner. He completely lost the ability to fold.
“Yeah, buddy,” Ted had told him. “It’s really me.”
“Hey its good to hear from you!” Jasper said. “What are doing calling me so late?”
“It’s the time difference,” Ted responded. “It is as early as I could get up. We are kind of on a schedule over here, you know?”
“Yeah,” Jasper said. “I forgot. Hey, why did you call?”
“I am gonna need you to do me a favor,” he said. “I need you to take your truck to the airport and leave it for me. You see, I am coming home in three days. The tour is up!”
“Hot damn!” he said. Then his fogged mind became even more fogged. “
“Why do you need my truck?” Jasper asked. “You can have it for sure. Consider it done! But why isn’t Carla picking you up?”
“Because I haven’t told her,” Ted said. “I am gonna surprise her!”
“She’s gonna be mad as hell you didn’t tell her!” Jasper said.
“You are not the first one to make that observation,” Ted replied. “But you let me worry about that. I aim to surprise her. That’s why I need your truck!”
Jasper didn’t understand any of it and Ted wasn’t inclined to do more explaining than he had to. He swore Jasper to secrecy and his Ranger was right there waiting for him. He tossed the bags in the back, fished the key from underneath a concrete block and drove away. The next time his mind locked, he was getting off the interstate, exit 6, with the BP straight ahead. He needed to use the bathroom, but he drove by and kept on going.
He needed to get home more than he needed to pee.
When the truck crossed the Allen County line, his heart starting beating faster as anticipation dug its claws into his chest. How beautiful was she going to look after all these months? He couldn’t wait to kiss her, to hold her. How many times would they make love in the next week? He couldn’t wait!
He idled the truck into the driveway, looked up at the tiny single wide and broke down into tears. He’d made it! How many bullets had been aimed his way? He couldn’t count. How many patrols had taken in eighteen months, patrols on streets and in alley where there was always something there wanting him dead? There had been so many. He’d made through all of it. Now he was home, his military service ended, and he would never leave this country again. He had seen all of the world that he wanted to see.
“What the hell?”
His tears broke as he caught sight of it in the back yard. He had to look again to make sure his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him. He walked slowly to his left, across a yard that was newly mown, and peered around the corner of a perfectly trimmed underpinning.
There it was. His eyes had not been playing tricks on him. It just sat there, half full of water, two little plastic boats floating around, laughing at him. His beating heart suddenly stopped. He felt as if he had been kicked in the chest, nuts, and guts all at the same time.
“Why is there a kiddy pool in my back yard?” he whispered. “We don’t have any kids.”
The answer he didn’t want was already whispering back at him. I don’t have any kids.
It was all back to the eighteen months. It was a long time to be sure. Time enough for a woman whose husband was not around to get caught doing something she shouldn’t have been doing. It was more than enough time for that little accident to grow big enough for a kiddy pool.
He had always dreamed of having a kiddy pool in his back yard. Now his dream had become his all too real nightmare. It haunted him broad daylight. Just as the eyes of the little boy looking through the glass now haunted him. The boy was no more than nine months old, holding himself up to the window frame. His eyes, though, were much older and much more sinister. They were the eyes of the devil himself, the spawn of the evil that his wife had portrayed against him.
“Is this what I get?” he said. “Is this what I get after all this time away? My wife becomes a whore and I get college money?”
The next thing he knew he was standing on the deck and on the other side of the storm door, the wooden door was opening. The look on Carla’s face was more than one of surprise, it was complete and utter shock.
“Ted?” she said. “What are you…? When did you…?”
“Hi, dear,” he said with what he knew to be a maniacal grin plastered all over his face. “Are you surprised?”
The little boy, Satan’s son, was still holding onto the window frame, staring at Ted with his knowing stare. I am the child of her lust! I am the son of her passion! You, Ted, are the intruder now!
“Ted,” she said backing away. “Let me explain!”
“There’s no need, dear,” he said evenly.
Ted didn’t know where the gun came from but it was there now, in his hand, leveled off at her forehead. They had taught him to take aim and fire. Don’t hesitate and, for God’s sake, do not think about what you are doing!
Ted did as he was taught to do. The big gun burped once. The bullet made a tiny little prick in the front of her head and then blew out the back half of her head. It was surreal. Her eyes never closed. Her legs buckled. For just an instant, she was on her knees looking up at him, as if she were going to apologize. Maybe she would have if he had given her the chance, but he hadn’t.
Carla collapsed at his feet and then the gun was leveled at the little boy. Don’t’ think, just shoot! But he did think! He had to think. When he did, he lowered the gun, kicked Carla aside and closed the door. He was not going to shoot a boy.
“Fire your fucking weapon, private!”
“He’s just a boy!” Ted said.
“He’s a little boy with an automatic rifle!” Sergeant Morris screamed back. “Now fire your damned weapon!”
Of course, none of those words were really said. In reality, no one spoke a word. No one had time to say anything. They rounded the corner into the alley, with Morris on the point and Ted in the rear. They were halfway down the alley when he heard the noise, the little something that just didn’t sound right. He spun around and saw the rifle first. He dropped to his knee, raised his weapon and…didn’t fire.
The enemy holding the rifle was a boy maybe no more than ten years old. When he was being trained to take aim and fire without hesitation, no one told him anything about having to kill a little kid.
I ain’t shooting a boy!
If he didn’t then all the men in his patrol would be killed. He had to kill the boy. He had to fire his weapon! He didn’t fire his weapon.
“Gun!” he yelled and then it was all slow motion.
He laid his gun down and ran straight for the boy. The boy, brainwashed from birth only to kill and hate, did not hesitate. He leveled the rifle and squeezed off three, four, or five rounds. Two missed, whizzing by Ted’s head as he ran. One he felt dig into this arm. Ted’s adrenalin was driving now. There was no pain, only an urgency to get there.
Then the last bullet hit his leg just as he was getting to the boy. That one did hurt. It hurt like hell! It had landed on bone, exploded in his leg and ripped open the artery. Even as Ted knocked the rifle away from the boy and punched him into unconsciousness, he knew the injury he had received was not good. Within seconds his whole right leg was hot and sticky. As he rolled over into the dust, he could smell his own blood. As the men closed in around him, as bunkmate Daniel Keegan and Sergeant Morris’ face hovered over him, he smelled his own death.
“What in the hell is the matter with you, private!” Morris barked at him.
“Sarge!” Keegan said and pointed to the leg. Morris followed Keegan’s pointing finger.
“Jesus,” he said. “Somebody get the medic here on the double!”
“I’ve already called,” someone in the group said. “He’s double timing it now.”
“Danny,” Ted said. “I need you to do me a favor.”
“Anything,” Danny said.
“I need you to send my ring to Carla,” Ted told him. “Tell her I never took it off! Tell her I was true to the end. Then tell her I said I will see her in hell!”
Ted Douglass died in the Iraqi sand….
…with the divorce papers and a picture of the little boy Carla Douglass had given birth to while he was off defending her freedom.
And earning his college money.