Hang Cool Teddy Bear
The Short Story by Kilian Kerwin
Shrapnel hurt. But not the way Patrick imagined. Not a sharp pain, like when he sliced his pinky to the bone chopping tomatoes at his old pizza parlor job. Or that time when he was exploring old man Feeney’s construction site and a two-penny nail punctured his Converse. No, this was more of a burn, as if someone was pressing the business end of a branding iron into his ribs. It hurt like a mother. But Patrick was still better off than his pal, Tennessee Tommy.
Tommy’s body was a stone’s throw away, face down and still, unnaturally contorted upon the rocky floor. What was left of his camos was in tatters. A large bone — his tibia, maybe — jutted out into the desert air. It made Patrick want to puke.
Patrick didn’t know how to feel now that his friend was dead. Not only did he like hanging out with Tommy — they had become close this last tour — but Tommy’s wife was expecting a child. He was due to ship home in nine days.
The November sky was orange with a tint of war. The acrid taste made Patrick even more nauseous. No matter how many tours he pulled, the stench was the thing he couldn’t get used to. He wondered, as he often did, what the place would be like without the tanks and the helicopters and the death and the destruction. He imagined what it would’ve been like two thousand years ago, when Alexander the Great invaded. Or two thousand years in the future… would camel-thorn still dot the dreary plains of the Kandahar tablelands? Most likely.
A crimson pool was forming below Patrick. Blood — his blood — seeped into the fabric of his fatigues, causing his boxers to cling uncomfortably to his skin. Patrick was not the squeamish type, yet he was a bit light-headed. Maybe the heat was getting to him.
His M16 was half-buried in a nearby ditch. Patrick remembered it was in his hand before the mortar exploded. Maybe he threw it. Maybe the rifle threw him. He couldn’t be sure. While he had confidence that his training had been top-notch, he wasn’t prepared for this sudden disorientation.
The lifers at the recruitment office talked up the adventure. Patrick liked the idea of upping the excitement quotient in his life, though it wasn’t hard to do. He didn’t mind working at a hardware store — the pay was okay and, although it wasn’t a real job, he could get there on the bus without changing lines — but things had become banal as of late.
Patrick didn’t want much out of life. Life willingly obliged. Looking forward to the minor league baseball season was about all there was. Tickets were cheap, he knew all the vendors, and the team picked up a couple of good hitters last season. Nothing wrong with that.
Sometimes Patrick wondered if he had a higher calling, a future. But the answer wasn’t clear, and he became more and more sedentary. The military would shake him out of that, he figured.
Man, did that shrapnel burn.
This, Patrick thought, this isn’t what I signed up for. Bleeding to death in the hot sun, waiting for who-knows-what to surface and squeeze the last breath out of you. Nothing around but broken earth and your best friend lying next to you, blown to bits. As they’d say back home,
Patrick made a hearty effort to turn his head. There was a ridge about fifty yards to the north. If he managed to get there, he might put himself within eyesight of a passing convoy. His platoon would soon notice that he and Tommy were missing, but without some kind of visual, they’d never find them. The sun was sinking fast so Patrick had to act.
He made a checklist: Lean over, and crawl along the ground. Get to the rifle, then use it as a crutch. Make your way carefully across the rocks to the promised land. Do it now, he told himself, before you re dead.
He had the strength, he thought. He just had to make that first move. But for some reason he couldn’t.
As they also say at home,
Out of the blue, hunger set in. He would go to his grave without even a last meal. Fuck it, he thought, and a wry smile almost crossed his face. Patrick recognized he had finally found his calling: to die a slow and miserable death.
The blood continued to flee Patrick’s head for places south, mostly the desert floor. His breathing was labored. It was hard for him to stay focused. His eyelids drooped.
He remained still for a moment; in a peaceful serenity, almost a sleep. Inside his brain, there was an imaginary beacon searching around, scanning all the deep recesses of his memory, looking for something — anything.
Death was close. Patrick relaxed, anticipating the proverbial dashing of his life in front of his eyes. He waited, the beam seeking and scanning… but nothing materialized.
He drew a deep breath and his eyes popped open. Lucid, snapped to reality, he couldn’t deny the bitter truth: He had no life. He had no signifying moments that defined him, at least not any that were going to manifest in the moment before his death.
He was a worthless piece of shit.
It should’ve been me, Patrick thought. I should be dead and it should be Tommy with a chance to get home. Tommy would drag himself to that ridge straight away and get his ass out of here.
He glanced over at Tommy’ s body.
Get up! Patrick yelled in frustration.
Get up, you motherfucker!
Suddenly light-headed again, he lost his bearings. He turned and looked back at the ridge. Still beckoning him, teasing him. Come to me, soldier. Come to safety.
His chin sunk into his chest and his eyes closed again.
She was beautiful. Her hair swept down across her forehead in an auburn wave just above her dark, alluring eyes. Her face was sculpted. Her shirt was a petite cotton number with a collar and it fit her like a glove. Patrick couldn’t name its color but he thought it was a pastel, one of those boutique varieties with a name like
Most striking was her gorgeous smile. Not exaggerated, just a mouthful of lips and teeth that formed the most genuine and welcoming smile Patrick had ever seen.
Patrick suddenly realized that they were making love. He ran his calloused hands under her shirt and down onto her firm naked buttocks, comfortably cupping them. Everything about her was invigorating. She looked up and flashed Patrick another warm smile. His heart swelled and even skipped a beat.
Patrick opened his eyes. He was still in the desert, still bleeding out.
Who was that woman? He didn’t know her. Who the hell was she? Where did she go? If felt like he had been dreaming; maybe he did know her. But if that was the case, he’s made a mess of that as well because she was gone. And he didn’t even get her name.
He slumped lower, face sunk into the dirt.
Patrick rode his motorcycle down the flat stretch of asphalt ribbon known as Highway 7. Jenny was on the back, holding on to him with the perfect amount of snugness. Suddenly Patrick knew her name, knew everything about her. Of course he did, because they were best friends. Or at least it felt that way.
His bike had a loud roar. Maybe not louder than anyone else’s but such that he couldn’t hear a word Jenny said. Sitting behind him, arms wrapped around his waist, her voice was little more than a whisper. But Patrick didn’t mind. He felt the chilly winter air. He knew something about physics and it didn’t make sense that Jenny’s 105-pound body could transfer so much heat into his two hundred pounds. But there it was.
As they crossed Moss River Bridge he accelerated and she pressed up harder against him. Patrick hadn’t told Jenny yet about his plans to go to Hollywood but knew that when he did, she’d leap at the chance to join him. He couldn’t explain why he hadn’t mentioned it yet and it dawned on him that he better do so soon else risk her pissing her off.
I’m going to California, he proclaimed.
I want you to go with me.
What? she fought to hear him over the motor.
Never mind, he shook his head. Satisfied, she pulled tighter against his hips with hers. Patrick smiled, content, and opened up the throttle again.
Suddenly Patrick was shivering. Seagulls cried out and he looked up to see them flying over a choppy, grey sea. He and Jenny were walking now, arm in arm onto a busy pier. Wall-to-wall people shuffled their way across the creaky wooden planks, pausing to engage vendors and sample arcade games. It must’ve been the Fourth of July. It didn’t make sense, the weather being so unkind at that time of year, but how else could he explain the American flags everywhere and the fireworks going off. Roman candles, firecrackers, sparklers; a potpourri of spectacle. The din didn’t bother Patrick. He followed Jenny as they pushed their way through the throngs.
Patrick noted that there was no patriotic music playing and that seemed odd to him. There should’ve been a brass band in the background the entire time, but he only now realized its absence.
Jenny spotted a cotton candy stand and made a beeline for the pink wisps that danced out of the spinning machine.
You want one? she asked.
My treat. Patrick shook his head no. Jenny took his hand and gently guided him over to a snow-cone booth.
I know you like these. As usual she was right. Patrick ordered a large and pointed at the cherry syrup.
The vendor filled the cone with shaved ice then let flow the syrup. He kept pouring and pouring, though, as if he didn’t have an off switch. Patrick gave him a look but he just kept it coming until there was more syrup than ice.
Patrick looked at the syrup overflowing and he really didn’t want it anymore.
That’s okay, Jenny said, and led him away.
The filthy elevator door opened and Patrick stepped into a dark corridor. The frayed carpet looked like it belonged in someone’s grandmother’s house. It reeked of stale cigarettes and cheap air freshener. Faded wallpaper was peeling from floor to ceiling, exposing the decaying yellow plaster behind.
Patrick walked past one scratched up door after another until he found number 305. He banged a couple times with his fist, but the music playing inside eclipsed it. He rapped again, so hard that his knuckles bled. Muffled voices emanated from behind the door.
A deadbolt turned and the door opened revealing a beast of a man sporting a bald head, blue jeans, and a torso full of tattoos.
Where’s Jenny? Patrick demanded.
What’s it to you? the big man replied.
Look, just let me talk to her… Patrick tried to push through into the apartment. Baldy-man wasn’t accommodating, blocking the door with his foot.
Patrick swung first but it was a stupid move. His punch barely fazed the guy, provoking him to hit back with a combination that immediately dropped Patrick to the ground. For good measure he gave Patrick a couple of kicks in the solar plexus with his work boots.
Patrick groaned, a sharp pain in his stomach, and his vision quickly blurred. He thought he saw a pair of women’s legs as they kneeled down beside him. But everything faded to black.
Patrick found himself in the woods, gingerly scaling a slippery rock which was really more of a large boulder. Jenny was ahead of him. She spread her arms and she leapt off, giving a wail of exuberance just before hitting the water with a splash. Patrick jumped a beat later and was submerged before Jenny surfaced. The water was chilly for this time of year and it gave him a shock. He looked for Jenny under the dark blue water but could only see a shadowy blur a few feet away.
Their heads popped up at more or less the same time. Jenny looked for Patrick up on the rock but then noticed he was beside her.
You! she exclaimed.
You were supposed to wait. She feigned annoyance but her glee was transparent.
I’m a shape shifter, Patrick replied.
I turned myself into the wind and whoosh I was down here. He squinted as he looked up at the huge boulder jetting out over the lake. He’d jumped from that ledge a thousand times but today felt like the first time.
Really? Jenny treaded water as she surveyed his face.
Shapeshift this… She pushed his forehead gently back then turned and swam towards shore. Patrick wasn’t much of a swimmer — Jenny obviously was — but he kept with her all the way. She crawled out of the water and flopped over onto the sand. In a heartbeat, Patrick was lying next to her.
That wasn’t very nice. He moved the wet tussle of hair out from of her eyes. She smiled her appreciation for the gesture.
Maybe I’m not very nice, she suggested.
Yes you are. Jenny leaned over and put her head on his shoulder blade.
You’re the best man I know.
He closed his eyes and felt the sun on his eyelids. Everything was yellow and he thought about how much he loved the summer. He wished he could be there with Jenny forever.
Hollywood Boulevard was more seedy than it looks on TV. Dried up chewing gum and discarded fast-food wrappers on the sidewalks, too much noise and pollution from the endless stream of cars cruising up and down the strip, an army of costumed lunatics at every corner. Patrick fit right in, dried blood caked on his face, a brown paper bag clutched in his left hand, a make-shift bandage wrapped around his right.
He paused to admire something in a store window: a panorama for some movie that was coming out. It looked crappy. Corny. Probably the kind Jenny would like. You could take the country out of the girl, he mused.
That looks like a piece of shit, doesn’t it? he heard her remark. But when he turned, she was nowhere to be seen.
Patrick stumbled up the street, winning the attention of the brightly-dressed prostitutes. He made his way past the redheads and blondes, fixating on a brunette under the streetlamp. She was looking the other way and, the way the light was hitting the side of her face, she had a strong resemblance to Jenny.
Patrick approached, stopping to stare at her while she finished her business. Finally she turned and engaged him, instantly warm. Up close and head on, she had none of Jenny’s refined looks. But she offered her arm, he took it, and they strolled up the street. For an instant, Patrick was happier than he’d ever been.
A light rain began to fall. But Patrick didn’t care. He watched as Jenny walked away towards a beautiful garden, one that seemed strangely familiar to him. He dropped down onto a bench as the drizzle intensified. Drops collected on his forehead and dribbled down his face, making it hard for him to see. He couldn’t be sure, but it seemed to him that Jenny turned and whispered,
I’ll see you soon? Patrick nodded that she would indeed.
A faint noise brought Patrick back. Sweat poured down his face and his body temperature seemed to have caught up with the desert’s. He was still in Afghanistan. The sun was going down and he was dying.
He heard the noise again. Like footsteps crunching in the dirt. He glanced at Tommy, God rest his soul, still lying there lifeless and disfigured. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw a weasel or a sand rat.
Almost involuntarily, Patrick unfastened his belt and slowly pulled it off. He scrunched up his cotton camouflage hat and pressed it against his ribs in order to quell the bleeding. He secured it with the belt and rolled onto his side.
He crawled over to his rifle and, using it as a support, gingerly got to his feet. There it was again, that noise. Or maybe it was a different one. Patrick cocked his head and could identify it now: the growl of a diesel engine grinding its way through the desert.
With newfound strength, he inched his way across the divide and got up onto the ridge. He looked down into the valley below and sure enough, coming up from what he thought was the east, was a U.S.-issue Humvee.
He raised his rifle, waved it back and forth, and tried to yell. But his voice refused to comply. He squeezed the trigger on his M-16 and it shouted like a cannon. The report threw him to the ground.
Patrick passed out.
Machines whirred and beeped, syncopated in a rhythm as they kept Patrick alive. Groggy, he wondered how long he had been asleep. It didn’t take him long to get his bearings: a hospital room somewhere overseas. He’d been hurt, in the desert, by a mortar blast. They rescued him, brought him here. He felt like he’d been out cold for a week, but it was probably only a day or so.
What about those dreams? About Jenny. Were they even dreams? Maybe this was a dream. He couldn’t think straight. He couldn’t possibly be tired — he just woke up. But he was beyond fatigued. And more than a bit confused. Maybe he was still asleep. He thought about this for a moment, just long enough for him to drift off again.
Patrick peered up at the doctor standing over him. He was asking questions but Patrick couldn’t answer. This wasn’t a doctor, it was a psychologist — a shrink. He might as well have been speaking Farsi. Patrick ignored him, deftly maneuvering to avoid eye contact.
He’d been here for at least a couple of days now, asleep most of the time but unable to dream. He was worse off than he could ever remember. They’d taken his youth, his soul, and now they’d robbed him of his dreams. He rued the day he’d ever enlisted.
It wasn’t helping that whatever they were feeding into Patrick’s veins had his RPMs red-lining. Jenny. Jenny. Jenny. The more he tried to focus on her, the less he could make out her face.
Why couldn’t they have left him there in the desert? Only twenty minutes away from darkness… If his injuries didn’t kill him, the night creatures would’ve finished the job. Or maybe a bogie patrol. That was his fate — to go out with a whimper. Why did they mess with destiny?
And what now? He’d be shipped back home to become another PTSD statistic. Therapy he wouldn’t want, sympathy he wouldn’t deserve.
All this contemplation made him tired. He strained to see the clock but couldn’t make out the time. It really didn’t matter anyway. His eyes closed.
There he was, running through the ferns with a renewed enthusiasm. The garden was bigger than he could’ve guessed. He kept catching glimpses of Jenny but every time he rounded a hedge to overtake her, she was gone.
Creatures lurked at every turn. Patrick couldn’t quite make them out — they hid in the shadows — but he could feel their presence. Though unseen, they were demonic, dangerous. Patrick feared for his life.
Undeterred, adrenalin coursing through his soul, he continued to run until his legs gave out. He dropped to the dirt and caught his breath. He was empty — spent — his spirit dissipated. He wanted to break down and cry but he didn’t have the strength. He wept dry tears.
He curled up into a ball, surrendering himself to the fate of the creatures. He was ready now. Ready to die. Darkness swallowed him.
Patrick’s eyes slowly opened. His vision was sharp now and he could make out the details in the stark hospital room. There was a television up on the wall. On a nearby table was a remote control but Patrick would never muster the energy to get it. Typical. How long would this hell go on?
The door opened and Patrick braced himself for another round with the shrink. But in she walked. Jenny.
If he wasn’t already laid out, he would’ve fallen to the floor. He had memorized every inch of her and she was exactly as he envisioned, except for now she wore a nurse’s uniform. And she’d done something different with her hair, pulled it back out of her eyes.
Patrick soaked up the creases in her freshly starched white blouse. She looked like a goddess. She noticed he was awake and a smile crossed her face.
Good morning. How are we doing today? Her voice sounded a bit different.
He nodded, enamored. She moved effortlessly across the floor, stopping at his bed. Patrick could make out her nametag: J. Turner.
Jenny? No, she smiled.
Julia. Patrick was confused. It was her — wasn’t it?
And you’re Patrick. She made an adjustment to his I.V.
Have you been to California? he asked, his voice weaker than he remembered it. Julia shook her head.
No. But I’ve always wanted to. Patrick’s heart soared
You okay? she asked. Patrick gave a slight groan of affirmation. As Julia came closer, he tried to ask her one of the million questions that jumped into his mind, but his vocal cords wouldn’t comply.
Julia gently grasped his hands in her delicate palms.
Shh… don’t try to talk. We can chat later. You’ve got your whole life in front of you.
Patrick closed his eyes. As he drifted off again he recognized that for the first time in years, he looked forward to tomorrow.