On Being Introduced to an Unexplainable Woman, Words Written in Blood, and a Lost Gold Ring
I lost my grip on life in the same amount of time it will take you to read this sentence.
It turns out a hundred feet is a long way to fall, even when you're at thirty thousand in a commercial liner. But in a twin prop Dash 7, it’s an oh-shit-life-flash-before-your-eyes type of moment, although, it really doesn’t have to be anything more than terrifying. Unfortunately for me, I had just unbuckled and ducked into the back of the dark plane in search of an extra piddle pack. When we dropped, I went up into the ceiling, my head, neck, and back taking the brunt of the collision.
That night, my professional life ended; the night I cracked two vertebrae.
I grew up worthless and graduated high-school slightly less worthless. It wasn’t until I dropped out of community college and joined the Air Force that I realized I had something to give, that there was an ideal I could strive for.
When I broke my neck, I was in Afghanistan, volunteering with a Special Operations unit to set up communications for a new forward operating base. The transport I hopped was running from Bagram out to the new remote location when my accident happened.
The job defined me; there was no separation between who I was as a person and what I did as an Airman. It was all I’d ever wanted, without ever knowing it – to do something worth doing, to matter.
And as quick as it came, it was gone.
Originally, the speculation was that I might have a brain injury, so they flew me to Ramstein and on to Landstuhl in Germany, where I went through the tests that determined whether or not I was still good to anyone.
The consensus came back negative.
I remember the day they came into my room and told me the good news that my brain was ok, but that I’d broken two vertebrae in my neck. My first question was if I’d walk. Yes. My second question was whether my military career was over. Yes again.
When I started seeing the physical therapist, no one could say for certain why my left arm would go numb and my hand would shake uncontrollably. The therapy did little to nothing for me. The shakes got worse. I got pissed and yelled at the therapists and told them they didn’t know what they were talking about. And the shakes got worse.
In response, I was flown back stateside and honorably discharged. No real help, no real guidance; just “Thank you for your service.” Saying I was shell-shocked was like saying an anti-tank missile is a bullet.
I’m not sure why I moved back to Washington DC; I say moved as if I had someplace else to go, like there was someone waiting for me with dinner on the table. That wasn’t the case. DC just seemed like as good a place as any. I drew disability and started seeing a therapist, as well as a physical trainer to continue treatment on my arm. But nothing we tried helped.
For the first few weeks, I looked for a job. Or, a more precise explanation would be that I filled out resumes online and pressed the send button. I blamed my unemployment on the job market, on high unemployment, on Barack Obama, on whatever was comforting at the moment. Regardless of the excuses, I always knew that playing Call of Duty for six hours a day wasn’t going to get me hired.
But I didn’t care. The jobs I applied for were ones I thought sounded cool; the ones I was qualified to do, I wanted no part of. I didn’t want to go work as a contractor; I had no desire to get back into the military world, not after the way they had discarded me like a well-chewed rack of ribs.
It hit me one day, as I ate another frozen dinner for breakfast, that I was a disabled vet. I was a vet with no job, no college degree, no desires to work as a contractor or do anything military related, and no real way to pay the bills that kept piling up. In the past few months, I had burned through what savings I had drinking beer and paying rent. The money was all but gone, and if there was one thing I knew I could count on, it was that rent was due on the first.
It was early in the afternoon a few days later and I decided to postpone the “job search”, so I dropped into a local gastro-pub around the corner for a drink. It was my third round, finally facing the full gravity of the situation I was in, when I heard someone call my name.
“Jay? How are you, man? I haven't seen you in years,” called the voice from over my right shoulder. I turned to find Sam Bartlett, an old friend from my brief stint at NOVA, staring back at me. I must have been wearing a slightly dumbfounded look, mixed with more than a hint of irritation, because his large crooked smile immediately faded.
“It's me, Sam. I know, I know, I've gained a few pounds,” he said, grabbing at his gut. “Ok, more like fifty. But how about you, how are you doing?”
I realized I was staring at him and made a conscious effort to change my demeanor. Although Sam had never been a good friend, he was always one of those guys that was just around, the truth was that it was nice to see a familiar face. The last thing I needed was to be left alone to sulk and drown away in my sorrows. I asked him to join me, which seemed to make up for the cold way I had greeted him because he laughed out loud and yelled “Hell yea, of course I will.” We grabbed a table in the corner next to the front window.
I ordered us a round of beers and he insisted I bring him up to speed. So I told him of my better days. He sat listening with complete interest, slouching onto the table, his hand holding up his fat face. By the time I got to the end, I was ready to leave.
“And apparently you can't go unemployed and still pay rent in DC on just military disability,” I said, trying to finish my story.
Sam perked up, fighting against his own body to sit up straight.
“Can't find a place to stay? Interesting. That's actually the second time today I've heard someone say that.”
“And where was the first?”
“Down at the lab, near the university. I was there this morning and a friend, well, more like an acquaintance, was complaining she had found a great apartment near Dupont Circle and can't find anyone to go in half for expenses.”
“Honestly, I don't think I can afford to live in Dupont, even if I'm splitting it,” I confessed.
“I guess she's got a great deal lined up. She said she knows an old lady who owns a bakery that has a large apartment above it that's not being used. It's not on the market so nobody else is going to rent it. She just doesn't want to take on the cost alone.” He paused and I could see him thinking about something. “But, the more I think about it, I'm not sure she's the type of person you would really want to live with.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well,” he started, shifting and moving in his seat. I stared as his jowls shook like a bulldog; I was waiting for him to slobber, “She's a little odd. Extremely intelligent and spends a lot of time studying different subjects, but nice enough, I guess. Different, that's what she is, different.”
“So she's a student?”
“Oh, no. She doesn't go to school at the university, she just sort of hangs out there sometimes. And the lab isn't a part of the school anyways, it's more of a hangout than anything else. She studies and reads a lot and is really good with a computer, I know all that. But I really don't know what she does.”
“You're friends, and you've never asked her what she does?”
“We're not really friends. We just know each other. I'm not sure she has any real friends.”
“Either way,” I said, confused and irritated by the conversation and Sam's constant fidgeting, “I'd like to meet her and get the specifics.”
“I'm sure she's still down at the lab, we could drive over now if you wanted. Where are you parked?”
“I didn't drive.”
“I don't mind taking you.”
I agreed, and waited for him to finish sipping his beer before we took off. I turned to face him as we walked out onto the sidewalk.
“So what's this odd acquaintance of yours named?”
Sam hesitated before answering, looking up at me as if he was sorry for something.
Genre – Mystery / Thriller / Suspense
Rating – PG13
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