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Picking Up The Pieces
“Eighteen is too young to watch someone die.”
The therapist leans toward me, studying my face. His eyes are sharp and probing. Everything about him suggests order; the impeccable trousers, the sleeked hair combed neatly to one side. I watch distantly as he flicks a piece of lint from the crisp fabric of his jacket. He is waiting for my response.
“Is there any age that’s not too young to die?” I ask, shifting uncomfortably in my seat. He scribbles feverishly on his clipboard.
“I hear that you and the young man-” He cuts off, glancing down at his notes. “Barron, were quite close. He was also a soldier stationed in Iraq, then?”
I nod tersely. My hands clench in my lap together until the knuckles turn white. The pain sends shocks through my arm, but it helps to clear my head. The therapist searches my expression.
“How long did you know him for?” he prompts. I knit my fingers together, squeezing harder this time.
“A long time.” I stare blankly at the wall. “Fifteen years, almost. Give or take.” There is a long crack in the plaster that stretches from the ceiling down to the center of the wall, marring the perfect white. It stares at me accusingly.
The therapist seems to hesitate for a moment before coughing delicately. “Some people find it is easier to deal with grief after mourning with the deceased’s loved ones.” He pauses to check his clipboard. “Did Barron have any family? Any friends you could talk to?”
I grit my teeth tightly together. The blood pulsing in my head makes my vision blurry. “His parents died when he was starting junior year.” The words taste sour. “I was his family. Katie and I, anyway.”
The therapist raises one eyebrow. “Was Katie a close friend of Barron’s?”
I can feel my pulse like an electric shock now. It travels through my veins, igniting the blood until it boils. I nod stiffly.
“His girlfriend, actually,” I correct him. “But she’s gone now. She left town after he...” I pause, glancing down at my shoes. “After she got the news. She’s pregnant. A boy, due in about three months.”
About six months too late for Barron to see the baby.
The therapist takes a moment to note something down. When he looks up, his eyes are filled with pity. “Trevor, sometimes when people we love are hurt or injured, we blame ourselves.”
There is a short pause as he waits for me to speak. I grip the sides of my chair, crushing the fabric beneath my fingers. “I don’t understand what you mean,” I say tightly.
He looks me square in the eye. “Do you think it’s your fault Barron is dead?”
Hot pressure burns at the back of my eyelids. I am back on the battlefield once again. The thick smog squeezes my lungs, and hot flames lick up my arms. The gunfire grates upon my ears like fingernails on a chalkboard.
“I don't-” More gunfire. Smoke. I am struggling to stay in the therapy room, but it is difficult. The therapist looks at me steadily.
“Trevor?” he asks. I can see his mouth forming words, but it is slipping away. His voice is lost in the orchestra of screams.
I cut my way through the crowd, pushing past the swell of human bodies. The panic is a wild animal, tearing savagely through the tangle of people. I can smell the sweat beneath the dusty grit of dirt. I clutch the trigger of my gun harder. A sick feeling of want fills me.
I am a monster.
“Trevor!” a familiar voice shouts. “Cap’n says to push left!”
Barron breaks through a gap in the mob, a wild grin breaking over his face. His forehead is streaked with soot and his blonde hair is plastered to his face with sticky sweat. He wields his gun with the eagerness of a child entrusted with a special toy. “There you are! I was worried for a moment.”
I open my mouth to speak when a deafening bang echoes from overhead. Rubble and dust begin to pour from the rooftops like heavy rain, sending shrieks echoing around the square. I dart among the buildings, weaving my way through the narrow gravel streets. My footsteps are heavy and sporadic, and I can feel the dust pressing into my throat and lungs. I dive beneath a nearby piece of tin and fire uselessly at the location of the noise. Barron makes quickly for the pile of tires across from me.
“Blimey,” he pants in disbelief. “It’s a mess out there. I’ll be glad when-”
A crack like a whip goes off. Barron’s head flies back at an unnatural angle, a stain of red protruding slowly from his chest. I watch in distant horror as his body crumples to the ground. Blood pounds like a drum in my head, and I think I am yelling, but I could not tell you what.
My feet move of their own accord, running until I am beside him. My hands are shaking as I push aside his shirt to inspect the wound. A red stain pools across the fabric, soaking on to my fingers. Barron’s eyelids flutter weakly.
“Trevor?” he asks. “What happened? I can’t-” He is cut off as coughs wrack his body. When his hand comes away from his mouth, it too is stained red. His frightened eyes stare at it in horror.
“Just hold still.” My useless hands clutch at my gun desperately. “I can fix this. I have to fix this.”
I look at the weapon I cradle in my arms. I am cut from cloth that is created to destroy. I'm no healer. Barron studies my face.
“How bad is it?” he whispers. “Trevor, how bad was I shot?” I shake my head.
“I don’t know. There’s too much blood to- it’s hard to tell.” I swallow thickly. “Maybe if I got some cloth, or leaves...” I search around me desperately for anything to pack the wound with. Barron’s voice draws me back.
“Trevor,” he says quietly. “Am I going to die?”
I can feel my heart falter in my chest. There are tears pricking at his eyes, and he lifts one hand to scrub weakly at them. My throat feels tight as I look at him.
“I don’t know,” I admit, my voice cracking. “It looks- it’s pretty deep.” I can feel pressure building up at the back of my eyes. Barron takes a heavy breath.
“Oh,” he says softly. It sounds as if all of the air has been forced from his chest with one punch. My heart contracts painfully.
“I could try to get to base,” I suggest feebly. “It’s not that far off.” Barron shakes his head.
“Camp is a thirty-minute trip, and Cap’n always says that a bleeder lasts only a mile at the most if you’re lucky. We wouldn’t make it halfway.”
It is like someone has kicked me in the chest. Looking up so he will not see me blinking away tears, I focus instead on the street in front of us. It is solitary in the starlight, though the screams have not yet faded from my ears, and the smoke still lingers. I can feel every one of my muscles screaming in protest, begging me to move and find cover. I register pressure on my arm as Barron fumbles for it.
“Don’t leave me,” he gasps, his grip surprisingly strong. “Please don’t leave me, Trevor. I don’t want to die alone.” He looks terribly vulnerable and childlike, his blue eyes shining innocently in the starlight. I'm reminded of when we were children and he was too scared to climb the trees. I always had to go first.
Exhausted, I buckle to my knees. My hand reaches out to grip Barron’s forearm. “I’m not going anywhere,” I promise hoarsely. “I’m here until the end.”
Barron's grasp relaxes slightly and he lets his head rest on the ground. His eyes flicker open and shut. “Do you believe in Heaven?” he asks tiredly. His eyes open again before coming to rest on me. I swallow past the lump in my throat.
“I don’t know.” It's an honest answer. Barron seems to struggle for a moment to keep his focus, his hand clutching more tightly at my sleeve.
“Can you try and know?” he asks. It is said with such hope that really, what choice do I have? I hesitate for only a moment.
“I think that there has to be more for someone as good as you, Barron.”
A silence passes as we sit, letting the still night wash over us. I can hear Barron’s breaths becoming shallower, yet it is the life draining from his eyes that unnerves me. Finally, I cannot stand the quiet any longer.
“Are you scared?” I ask softly. “To die?”
The blackness swallows my words, carrying them from our secluded island and into the burning city. I can tell it takes Barron an effort to focus on me.
“I’m only scared of what I’ll miss,” he says. “Kids, family, your wedding. Katie.” His eyes become distant. “Tell her that I love her, okay? Tell her that I will miss her smile everyday.”
“I will,” I promise thickly. “I’ll watch out for her, Barron, I swear it.” His eyes are almost gone now. The blue has been swallowed whole by the dark of his pupil. He takes a shuddering breath.
“And my baby.” Barron coughs. “Tell him that I wanted to be there to see his first steps. His graduation, and wedding, and every little league baseball game he’ll ever play in. Just tell him... Tell him I’m sorry that I’m only a father when I could have been a dad.”
His eyes are rimmed with red. I bite my lip until the metallic taste of blood fills my mouth. “I’ll tell him stories everyday,” I assure him. “I’ll make sure that he’s the happiest kid alive, I promise.”
Barron focuses his gaze back on me with difficulty. “Good,” he breathes. “Good. I'm so fortunate- I’m so lucky...”
“Barron?” My voice is alarmed. “Barron?” I can feel his grasp slipping.
“Do you remember,” he gasps, “when we used- used to climb the trees? You al- always had to go first.” A film of sweat has formed on his forehead from the effort it has taken him to talk. A dizzying sensation overtakes me and I lay a hand gently on his shoulder.
“Hey,” I say roughly. “It’s all right. Just try to breathe.”
Barron shakes me off impatiently. I can see the struggle within him to form the words. “Can’t you see, Trev?” he pants, his eyes shining. “It’s my turn. My turn to go- go first this time.”
I wonder if he can feel how badly I am shaking. My entire arm is a stranger, trembling under an unseen current of pain. “Barron! Don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me.”
My hands paw at his arm pointlessly, as if I can grab on to the life and force it back into him. Barron ignores me, his eyes drilling holes into mine. “I never got to thank-you,” he breathes. “I always- always knew you were going to be the best friend I ever had.”
My entire body crumples and I do not try to stop the tears this time. They pool in my eyes, making my vision blurry. I give him a watery smile.
“But not better than you.” I squeeze his hand. “I could never be better than you.” Barron lets out a relieved breath, and his body drops to the ground and relaxes.
“Mom,” he whispers. “Dad. I’m coming to be with you...” His eyes flutter shut, and I clutch his hand more tightly.
His chest rises once more before falling, and remains unmoving in the starlight. I stare in disbelief. My heart is tearing painfully in my chest, ripping itself apart until I am nothing. I can feel hot anger pulsing through my veins and suddenly I am screaming, raging, furious at the world. I kick the wall beside me with a savage passion until my toes are crushed beneath me. It is not fair that Barron is dead.
It is not fair that he is dead, when he had so much more to live for than I do.
The clock ticks a steady beat as I blink in the bright light in the therapist’s room. Polished white furniture stares back at me. I can feel a stinging in my hands and I see that my nails have cut deep marks into the flesh. The man seated across from me leans forward in concern.
“Trevor?” he asks. “Are you all right?” I stare at him through wild eyes, but manage a nod.
The therapist's eyes are troubled, and his hand fidgets with his pen. “Trevor, I want a yes or no. Do you blame yourself for Barron’s death?”
His tone is firm, but there is an innocence I had not noticed before. For the first time, I allow myself to properly look at him. Although grey hair has begun to sprout at his temples, his face still bears the marks of youth. His eyes are unscarred and hopeful. They have not seen what I have seen. I close my eyes.
“No. I don't blame myself for his death.”
He jots something down absently, his polished pen making neat loops on paper. He glances at me over the top of the board.
“That’s good,” he says encouragingly. “Eighteen is too young to bear such guilt. With age comes wisdom and understanding.”
I look at this man of fifty. His shoes are polished and scrubbed, very expensive from the look of them. His clean-shaven face leaves no trace of any stubble and one leg is crossed primly over the other. His face is smooth and earnest.
In five years and three months, there will be a child celebrating his fifth birthday. He will look at the empty spot where his father should be sitting. His gaze will travel to his little league trophy, and the corner where no briefcase stands.
He will know more sorrow than this man could ever imagine.
“Perhaps,” I say. “But the scars of age on your body are not the same as the ones on my mind.”
I stand up and leave.