This story is by Tyler C. Dollberg and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
John Barber walked in and sat at the bar of Roy’s Pub. He ordered a beer, which sat for some time sweating; untouched. The cool droplets slowly made their way down the dark glass and relaxed on the bar. Meanwhile John’s eyes ignited with fire from Iraq, fueled by the memories of war.
The bar door opened and a cool breeze rushed in and brushed across John’s face. He felt the stinging, sandy heat of the desert while the green canvas draped overhead provided relief from the unrelenting sun. The stretchers that lined the tent were crammed with soldiers and citizens alike, some with bullet wounds, some getting vaccinations, and some getting basic checkups. They were all in good spirits as they laughed and played games together. Language barriers did little to dull their spirits, even on the edge of a war zone. In the corner of the tent John tended to a young boy accompanied by his parents. Ali had come in with a bad infection a few weeks before and john had been treating him ever since. He was only seven but a smart kid; he was an astonishingly good soccer player and loved to play car; He had a wife and two kids
The bar door slammed closed as the first shell ripped through the tent and exploded with malevolent force. Then came the second, and the third, and then the fourth. John dragged Ali to the ground and began yelling barely audible orders at the soldiers over the roar of explosions. John knew the walls and buildings of the small village nearby would be more defensible than the open canvas of the field hospital. They could have a chance there, so John gave the call for everyone to head to the village while the soldiers did what they could to return fire. The shells kept falling and bodies began to appear on the hills surrounding the camp. Too many. The hail of gunfire cut through the camp like a sickle through fields. Rounds shredded canvas, metal and flesh. Three men fell. then four, then seven.
It was time to move. John ordered his men back to the village. When everyone had fled, John turned and headed after them. He watched as his men dropped in front of him. Just ahead of him a young private, barely nineteen, was thrown forward as another explosion severed his leg. John hoisted him onto his shoulder and kept moving, the boy screaming in agony. Two more fell in front of him. John grabbed one by the collar and kept running. Through the village gate John was met by some of the doctors who volunteered at the camp; they took the two injured boys. John grabbed one his nearby men and ordered him to radio an evacuation, while the rest of the men tried to hold the onslaught at bay.
John ran back through the gate and into the fray toward the men still on the ground. He reached the first man, an older sergeant on his last deployment. The sand stuck to the blood that soaked his skin. His lifeless eye met Johns. He had to leave him. He had a wife and two kids. The second soldier was barely conscious, blood seeping from his abdomen. John hoisted him over his shoulder and made his way to the third. His face was black from the ash and his clothes were in tatters from the shrapnel now deep in his arm and chest. He began dragging him back. At the gate with the last two men, John threw them through. One last check. In the open field lay a dozen corpses, men, women, soldier, all motionless in the blood rich sand. But something stirred. There was someone alive out there. Behind a wrecked heap of a car, there were two bodies. One of the bodies was moving. John took off once more. The hail of gunfire grew fiercer and the waves of shell becoming more frequent and ferocious. The shells continued to rain down as John approached the bodies. They were both locals and clearly dead. But behind the bodies a trembling Ali sat clinging to the bloody sleeve of his mother. John picked up the boy who fought trying to stay with his parents. He cradled Ali’s head against his chest and headed for safety, his men fighting ever more vigorously from the village.
John tore through the gate one last time. A powerful burning sensation then washed over him as he felt the blood running down his back and chest and on his arm. The large round had torn through his back, his lung and exited his chest severing his hand along the way. There was too much blood and John realized that it wasn’t all his.
John raised his drink from the bar and emptied it at once. Ali’s tears fell from the bottle and stained the blood sand mix below John’s feet. John’s vision began to fade. The spinning blades of the bar’s ceiling fans hummed as the Helicopters approached. Stay awake. The smoke signaled the landing zone. Stay away. Men dragged John towards the helicopter. Stay awake. Ali’s eyes half shut; his body motionless against the wall.
You’re a hero they told him as they draped the medal around his neck.
John left the bar without a word, leaving the dark bottle alone on the empty bar. Back in his small bedroom, he sat at his empty desk. From a dusty box he produced that same medal. The highest honor they called it. He draped it around his neck. It weighed on him, everyday he put it on it seemed to get heavier. You’re a hero they told him.
The empty casing hit the ground just after the gun.
You’re a hero they told him.
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