(Short story for class)
The last time I had seen John was around his 18th birthday party. Dozens of people, both family and friends, came to see him show off his freshly mounted diploma. Most of the town must have been there – his amazing athletic performances on the football field bringing him the small town fame he had always desired.
In the late afternoon of the party, some of the team surprised him and began to carry him upon their shoulders. A toast was called; “To Jonny! The top quarterback in the division! Go get ‘em in the college game!” Cheers erupted from the team.
Through the crowd I caught a glimpse of John’s mother, someone I had never actually met despite becoming close friends with him during my freshman year. The pain of the cancer confined her to her chair, but her eyes wept with joy as the only town she had ever known came together to celebrate her only son. You could almost see the radiance from her soul lift her up as John stood to address the crowd.
He talked for a while, thanking everyone for coming. Coach went up to shake his hand. “I couldn’t have done this without all of you guys behind me, and for that I owe all of you,” proclaimed John, some of the crowd cheering, “I’m off to college real soon. I’m not really sure what to expect, but I’ll be sure to bring back a lady for y’all to meet when I come for a visit in December!”
A month later he was gone, and never came back.
I heard from someone that college didn’t really work out for John. A few months into the semester he got caught smoking pot with some girls a year younger than he – supplying to a minor in the eyes of the school. He lost his scholarship and was expelled for a year. His mother died later that year in a hospital out East. That was the last I had heard of him.
It would be 12 years until John came to my dentistry practice in our hometown with a limp in his step and scars on his wrist. I didn’t even recognize him at first; the man with a scruffy chin and a hidden pain looked nothing like the best friend I had known for 4 years. His once full frame appeared to be only a shell of what he once was.
“He- hey man, long time no see”, he said through a grimace after quietly entering my office. It was a few minutes before it was time to close, and I was late to dinner. I barely glanced up, seeing only another oily vagrant slipping through town.
“Sorry we’re closing right now. If you would like to make an appointment you can give my secretary a call next Monday.” I continued to work on a random assortment of papers and forms that constituted my daily busywork. It was the scent of the strong whisky on his breath that snapped my attention away from signing away the last few signatures and running out the door. I looked up and there he stood, looking hurt that I hadn’t even given him the time of day. We locked eyes and I could barely believe whom I saw before me.
“John? Christ! Is it you?” I struggled for words. I had nearly forgotten about him since med school. His eyes fell to the floor.
“Hey, yeah, its me…” I barely let him finish before I moved to catch him in a hug. That was when he cracked.
“Hey, HEY BACK OFF MAN! WHAT THE FUCK? BACK THE FUCK UP MAN!” I witnessed terror in his eyes and rage in his voice that I would never have associated with the John I knew. I stopped in my tracks, unsure of what to do with this suddenly hostile figure.
“…. John?” I asked, hoping for some kind of recognition from the boy I once knew. He backed up against a chair behind him and collapsed into it, bringing his knees to his chest. His voice waivered almost as much as his hands.
“Ye-yeah. Sorry dude. I came to- I came…” he fell off the chair, his mind obviously being somewhere else. He laid there, his knees still at his chest, and cried. A mark on his arm caught my eye - fresh track marks along black and blue veins.
“John...,” I hesitated, not truly sure who it was that lay on the floor before me, “John, do you need a place to sleep?” He began to almost chuckle, his eyes on some unseen specter before him. He fell suddenly quiet, and when he finally looked me in the eye I saw a soul that had not seen kindness in a long time.
“Come on, let’s go. My wife has a hot meal ready for us and I just finished refinishing our guest room with a queen sized bed.” His eyes darted to the far wall. I approached his still form slowly, kneeling by him.
“OK” was all he could manage to whisper.
I awoke sporadically that night; unsure of whom it was I had let into my house. I peeked into his room at one point in the early morning, just to check. Cracking the door an inch or two, I couldn’t see him on the bed. I couldn’t see him sitting in the chair or watching TV either. The door bumped into something as I opened it further to get a better peak. There he was, curled into a ball on the floor, sleeping where no one could get in without him knowing. I didn’t know what to make of it, and so I went back to my wife in bed. I didn’t sleep the rest of the night.
The morning brought with it the sounds of tractors chugging in the distance and the smells of cooked bacon and hash. The town’s hydroelectric dam whirred away a mile down the road. I sat at the kitchen table, eating my breakfast, when I heard John’s door creak open just down the hall. He peaked around the corner before rounding it – checking for some unseen threat – and cautiously sat at the table. I poured him a cup of coffee.
“Thank you. About yesterday…” he began quietly, “it’s been a long trip back.” He sipped his coffee and stared at the wall, his hands still shaking from the withdrawal from what I presumed to be heroin. As he scratched his tracks marks, I noticed a tattoo on his upper arm. An eagle, globe and anchor. He was a marine.
“What happened to you man?” I asked. He twitched, and at first all he did was continue to stare. “I notice your tattoo,” I mentioned, motioning to his arm.
In the moments following, I’m not sure what transpired. All I know is that he erupted into tears. His soul cried out in pain through the voice of this broken man, and he then balled up in his chair once again.
“Hey, its cool man, we don’t have to talk. Just let me know this: are you ok?” “I…I think so.” Was the only response he could cough though his sporadic tears. I had an appointment to make, and left John at the house. I didn’t fully trust him, but the friendship we once held gave him the benefit of the doubt.
After my business was done, I called up a favor from an old college friend who now worked a desk job in the Marines’ personnel department. I gave him John’s name and original address, and he faxed me what would be a folder an inch thick.
I didn’t have much time before I had to return to John and my family. I paged through the mental health records and a few dozen decorations. A section caught my eye – “Deployment”. Opening the section, a list of Arabic sounding nations sweeps down the page - a few I recognize. Iraq. Egypt. Afghanistan. He was deployed in the Middle East.
Just before I decided to close the folder and get on my way I turn the page to find a giant red stamp across the section marked “Current Status”. DECEASED. Unsure of what to make of it, I read on. “Major Johnathon Baker: KIA in Pakistan. CLASSIFIED.”
A chill ran down my spine. I hurried home to see just what exactly was going on. My wife’s car was in the driveway; she was home from work. She could be in the house with a heroin addict. A dead man.
I hastily park the car on the street and rush to the door. I fly into the house, looking for my wife and John. I find the former watching the TV and sipping a beer.
“Where is he? Where is John?!” I franticly ask. “I don’t know, I thought he was with you! I’m not his keeper…”
And just like 7 years before, he was gone. He never came back.