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The Success of the Dying MAG
The sound of the gunshot echoes in the still desert, and everything becomes silent. Lewis hears agonizing cries and Adrien shouting his name.
“Lewis, Lewis! Man, you can't fall on me now!” Adrien shouts, his voice traveling across a vast expanse of desert. Lewis wants to tell him that he's fine, it's just a bullet, this is a war and these things happen. But he falls over, unable to tell the difference between the ground and the sky. The bullet has punctured the right side of his abdomen. The world becomes blurred, obscure, incomprehensible. He can't shout; the words are stuck in his parched throat. Numbness overwhelms his chest, the pain spreading through his right leg and branching to his left side. His head lies on the ground, parallel to the cerulean sky, an endless expanse of nothingness. The immeasurable blue creates an ache in his brain. Lewis jerks his head to the side to face the gray gravel, causing a searing pain to shoot through his body.
He slips in and out of consciousness. The world becomes blurred, then lucid, then blurred again. The ringing of gunshots and the rough-voiced commands of the lieutenant are unfamiliar, as if he's a stranger hearing them. He clasps his hand over the wound, trying to alleviate the soreness. He immediately feels warmth, drowning in a thick sea of red. It smells like death, a stench he is all too familiar with. It's as hot as the blazing Afghani sun, and it's sticky, clinging to his scarred skin then dribbling to the ground.
Lewis turns on his side, his face now even with the dust. The gravel blows with small gusts of wind, stinging his eyes. Afghanistan. He has come to know the desolate villages filled with hostile, sun-soaked people as a part of his daily life. Men geared with M-107 sniper rifles are a usual sight, and the blast of a hand grenade has become as familiar as the melodic tune of his doorbell was back home.
He's twenty, and he doesn't know much else. He hasn't had the opportunity to explore the world. Some went to college; Lewis went to war. He knows the isolated gravel roads and the folds in the land just as he knows the lines and creases of his palm. He can recite instructions for assembling and disassembling any weapon in his sleep, just as college students recite textbook facts. Pity starts to grow in the pit of his stomach, subdued by the piercing pain of his wound.
A man comes toward him, and Lewis makes him out to be the enemy. The stranger wears white cotton, stained with the orange-brown soil of this land. A black cloth covers his mouth and nose, and the head of a slender rifle rests on his neck. He seems confused and anxious, almost nervous. He scans the landscape before making eye contact. The black cloth covering his mouth comes closer and closer, masking the gray gravel. Lewis sees his eyes, dark chestnut that glimmer in the oppressive rays of the sun. The stranger keeps approaching, and Lewis continues to fight the force of his subconscious that threatens to pull him under. Lewis hears the crunching sound of his jaw breaking as the man's foot against his face knocks the breath from him. He tastes the iron of his blood. Then, there's blackness.
He didn't have a life ahead of him. At least, that's what his father would yell before slamming the door in Lewis's face and continuing to drink in the small haven of his bedroom. Lewis had gone through four years of high school, and he had nothing to show for it. He was a consistent student – consistently failing. Teachers would attempt to give him the incentives of success and prosperity; those two, they claimed, would lead to happiness. The only drawback was that success wasn't palpable. It wasn't the path he was heading down, and he accepted that because he believed there was no true path to success.
Success was a commodity that
took years to create and just a few unfortunate events to tear down. There wasn't any point in working so diligently toward such a fallible grand prize. His father was a prime example. He had been a meticulous student, was accepted into a prestigious liberal arts college in upstate New York, and was well on his way to a great career in writing; all it took was the death of Lewis's mother and a couple of drinks to turn his life from a promise to a train-wreck.
Pathetic. That was all Lewis thought as his father slouched on the sofa in front of him, with red-rimmed eyes and the bitter stench of alcohol on his breath. His father waited, tapping his fingers on the mahogany table in front of him.
“You should join the Army,” he said. The thought hit Lewis as unexpectedly as a bullet. He grasped for words inside the jumbled confusion his mind had become.
“The Army?” he asked cautiously, yearning for his father to reveal that he was mindlessly rambling in his drunken state.
“At least you'll be getting somewhere, not just sitting on the couch like a lazy son-of-a-b**ch.” He left before Lewis had the chance to argue, leaving behind a wrinkled pamphlet that read, “Find a clear path to leadership and success. Join the Army.”
Success. It was an enigma with no obvious meaning. There was mass confusion in war, and the only clarity was a soldier firing a weapon. The only clarity was an enemy. There was no blatant sign of courage. The pamphlet was a lie. The only apparent truth was a war between two entangled complexities, and in those complexities there were people who led simple lives. They had commands and orders. They had a mission, a purpose, and in the mass chaos of Lewis's life, he craved simplicity. He needed someone in addition to his father to tell him that he had a goal, where the stakes were real and tangible.
Happiness was foreign; there was no such thing, at least not after his mother died. Success itself was false because it made empty promises of such illusory emotions as satisfaction. Sure, temporary moments of gaiety existed, but none withstood the test of time. War was an environment that acknowledged the cruel fact that society failed to accept: people die. Lewis needed insensitivity and truth. He needed men who had been through hell just as he had – an emotional hell. Lewis wasn't pessimistic, he was realistic – and he needed to be around people who felt the same. He picked up the pamphlet, and before he could convince himself otherwise, he found the contact information.
Lewis awakens in a sea of numbness. A man is swabbing the wound in his side in an effort to stop the blood. Lewis can barely see the man's face; it's one large oval. There are no features.
“Lewis, Lewis,” the man says, his hands wiping Lewis's face. His voice is gruff but gentle.
“It's me, man. It's Adrien. Damn, did you get hit twice?” Adrien continues to mop the blood. Lewis tries to imagine muddy brown eyes on the faceless person in front of him, eyes as deep and cloudy as the sh*t-filled river he'd crossed this morning. Adrien's nose is a ridge as steep as the Hindu Kush, and his eyebrows are as bushy as the shrubs that bring life to the otherwise bare ground.
Adrien is Lewis's friend; he is a soldier; he is Lewis's success. He's probably going to be the last person Lewis sees, his last reminder that he did succeed. Adrien will outlive him, and that's fine with Lewis, because he knows that if he hadn't saved Adrien, Adrien wouldn't be the man swabbing his wounds now.
Adrien lifts his body, and Lewis feels as if he's floating on nothingness, on blackness. He sees scenery whizzing past, and he closes his eyes, unable to grasp his surroundings. It's all too confusing: he's going to die. The last person he will see is Adrien. He succeeded. Thinking causes his head to spin. He can't keep his eyes open, and his brain starts to ache. He catches a glimpse of the sky before he is subdued by utter blackness again.
Adrien needed time to think. He had received a letter from the mailbag in one of the helicopters that had come to replenish the rations. It was from his girlfriend in the States, or at least that's what the rumor was. He exited camp, walking with no apparent destination. The sun was setting, and there was no sign of civilization, not even a sorry-looking village. After a while, once you walked far enough, everything started looking like everything else. You couldn't find your way. There was just sand.
Adrien had left at seventeen hundred hours, and it was approaching twenty-two hundred hours. Lewis suggested that they search for him. They were a platoon, and if one went missing it was their responsibility to look for him. The other platoon members said Adrien would be fine; they told Lewis not to worry. Adrien was a big boy. He could take care of himself.
However, Lewis knew in Afghanistan, Adrien couldn't. The wind was beginning to pick up, and the desert could not be navigated easily. Dust stung Lewis's eyes and burned his throat, leaving him gasping for air. Adrien wouldn't be able to find his way back. He would die out there.
The fate of a soldier largely depends on luck and the belief that amidst hell, there is one thing a man can truly rely on: his fellow soldiers. It could have been craziness that led Lewis into the desert storm, but it was largely faith, that small string of hope that gives a soldier the will to live and fight. It was that small thread of conviction that eventually led Lewis to Adrien.
Lewis wanted to believe that Adrien would have starved without him. Adrien would have wandered aimlessly through a maze with no end or beginning. He would have been stuck in limbo, caught in a brown monotony. Lewis liked to believe that Adrien would have died without him; he would have become a part of the landscape, his corpse buried deep in the debris. If Lewis imagined this, he knew that the remorse of being a witness to death in war was compensated by the fact that he saved a life. He had succeeded as a soldier.
Lewis hears the buzzing of a helicopter as he is placed onto a bed. He tries to cock his head to one side, straining to glimpse Afghanistan one last time. He's twenty years old, and he's about to die. He thinks about success. He thinks about the way the large sun recedes behind the clouds at dusk. He thinks about Adrien and his pointy nose and bushy eyebrows.
Success is tangible in the most difficult way to comprehend. Lewis saved a man whose corpse would have been lost in a sea of sand. Now he is the man with a bullet through his side, and he knows there is no hope. Yet he is content.
“You don't have a life ahead of you.” That's what his father used to say, but little did he know that Lewis's life would help save another. He can still picture the pamphlet very clearly with “success” written in bold yellow letters. Success's full value lies in the risk. It lies in the foreboding thought that it may not last, although the memory is eternal. It lies in the fact that Adrien will die some day despite Lewis saving him. Now he will die an old man. Success is the swelling of his chest in pride when every other part of him is bleeding or broken; it's the silent contentment in the final moment when blackness fades into oblivion.