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Fiction Friendship

They got off the plane with only carry-on baggage. This was going to be a one-night trip. They headed to the rental car counter in the small airport, rented a cheap sedan on a government credit card, and went to the exit.

Grimes inhaled deeply as he stepped through the doors and smoothed on his beret. He looked up at the other man, from the patent leather shoes up his blue trousers to the dark blue jacket and the captain bars on his shoulders. He was smoothing on his own beret.

"Ready, Sergeant?" Captain Owens asked. He didn't smile, but he had a light and cheery demeanor.

"Uh, yes, Sir." Grimes didn't know the captain. They were in the same brigade, but that is like saying Hawaii and Alaska are the same because they are both states. He was old for a Captain, gray heavily assaulting his crewcut hair, and deep crow’s feet were carved next to his blue eyes. He was a tall guy and lean. He looked like the type that ran for fun, not just for the PT tests. There wasn't much gossip surrounding him. They'd been traveling together for nearly two days, and the officer had been kind and reserved.

"Good, I didn't print any addresses or directions. Since this is your turf, I figured you could drive." Owens tossed the keys to Grimes.

Grimes caught the keys, "Yes, Sir. Do you mind if we take a few detours first?"

"No, of course not." He smiled then, softly. He’d already told Grimes that they could tour around. That’s why they arrived early in the day.

The car was a white Impala, roomy but not huge. Their luggage went into the trunk. Captain Owens put the package into the back seat. Grimes quickly looked to the driver’s window and saw his dress blues and Sergeant chevrons staring back at him. He had already lost some weight since he couldn’t work out as much, but he still had a tan. He’d gotten a fresh high and tight yesterday that disappeared into the beret. They got in the car.

It was a gray October day, not cold, but it looked like it should be. Brown grass stretched to the horizon all around the tiny airport. A constant wind pushed through and made the grass ripple.

"I don't think I've ever seen so much open space go unpaved," Captain Owens said.

"Welcome to the middle of the middle of nowhere, Sir," Grimes said. "There isn't much out here."

They drove out of the airport parking lot and entered a highway flanked by brown grass and barbed-wire fencing. Grimes was going away from town, but the Captain didn't seem to mind. He was looking out the window. He still didn't say anything when Grimes turned down the unmarked dirt track.

Grimes was careful with the rental. It couldn't handle the track like his old truck used to. It didn't look like his truck could handle the track the same way anymore. A grater hadn't been down this way in a long time. He managed the ruts and holes well enough to avoid damaging the sedan or getting it stuck and got to the end of the track.

"There used to be a stock pond here," Grimes said in disappointed surprise as they parked in front of a bowl of dirt.

"I'd come out here in my old truck," Grimes continued. "Brown, Specialist Brown from the company, he and I grew up here. We'd come out here, hang out, drink, and swim in that nasty water." Grimes’s tongue filled his lip where his Skoal would have been. "One time, we got in a fight over a girl out here." He looked to Captain Owens, who hadn't spoken but was looking at him attentively. "I'll be damned if I remember her name," Grimes chuckled and rubbed his jaw. "But I remember that right hook."

"That's how it is with friends, sometimes," Owens said. "Even if it seems important enough to separate you at the time, you'll find that your bond is more important."

"I guess so," Grimes said, distantly staring at the dried-up pond. "Are you hungry, Sir? It's lunchtime, and, personally, I had a pretty sad breakfast very early this morning."

Captain Owens smiled, showing his perfect teeth. "I could eat. Did you have a place in mind?"

"Yeah," Grimes returned the smile. "You like burgers?"

They picked their way down the dirt track back to the highway and headed toward town. Gray skies and brown grass turned into gray skies and empty industrial yards. A gas station would pass, then a half-empty strip mall, and then more empty industrial yards.

"What do they do here?" Captain Owens asked, noticing the lack of industry.

"They're transitioning, I guess," Grimes said. "Used to be an oil town with a booming refinery. Now the booms come less often."


"Holy crap!" Grimes pulled off to the side and gawked out of the Captain's window. "What did they do?"

They were stopped alongside a building with metal siding and large windows. A stadium could be seen a block away, and a block in the other direction was a small parking lot.

"What's wrong, Sergeant?" Owens asked.

"This is my high school," Grimes said in a daze. “They did a lot of updating and building on. This used to be a parking lot." He got out of the car and walked to one of the windows. "And the pool used to be a chipped, half-condemned thing in the basement. Not this." The building housed stadium seating over an Olympic-sized pool bathed in light from the windows.

"Good for them," Owens said, standing behind his door. "You forgot your cover, Sergeant."

"Shit," Grimes hustled back to the car, ducking his beret-less head. "Sorry, Sir."

"It's OK." A languid, pleasant response.

Grimes grabbed his beret from the car and walked up the block staring at the newly built wall. “Oh man,” he groaned. “They took down the senior wall.”

“What’s that?” Captain Owens asked, following him.

“There was a grass strip and a tree in this parking lot,” Grimes explained. “There was a retaining wall blocking the tree from the road, and at some point, all of the seniors took to signing it before graduating. There were hundreds of signatures on that thing. You would think they would have saved it.” He trailed off and looked back at the pool building.

“Might be something to ask about,” Owens said supportively.

“Yeah, maybe,” Grimes muttered as he returned to the car.

"Do you have a command, Sir?" Grimes asked once they had gotten back into the car.

"No, that isn't how my job works," Owens said. "If I have any people to worry about, they are self-sufficient. Usually, NCOs and I just sign a thing or two when I need to."

"That's weird," Grimes said. "You should be a company commander."

"I don't need all that stress," Owens smiled at Grimes.

"True story, Sir. All right, let's go get that burger."

Grimes shifted into reverse to pull out. He began to turn to look behind him, then stopped stiffly. He backed as little as possible, using only the camera and mirrors to get out of the spot. They started driving again, getting into a more urban setting. A few shops and restaurants passed by, with some foot traffic between them.

"Brown went to that high school too," Grimes said. "I was a year ahead of him, even though we were the same age. It was a birthday thing. I enlisted as soon as I graduated. He was going to drop out, get his GED, and follow me, but Mama Jean wouldn't let him."

"His mom?" Owens clarified.

"Yeah, they moved up here from Louisiana when Brown was little. His dad was following the oil. Mama Jean lost most of her accent but not much else from down there." Grimes smiled and shook his head slightly. "Woman practically raised me. I was at their house more than I was home."


"Oh, nothing bad," Grimes assured. "I was an only kid, and my parents worked a lot, so Mike, Brown, I mean, and I would hang out all the time."

"So, he had to wait a year to join?" the Captain prompted.

"Yeah, and getting the same unit as me was some kind of dumb luck," Grimes said. "But I guess it makes sense with the deployment schedule."

They go silent for a time as Grimes weaves through town and finally pulls off the road in front of a shed.

"Here we are," he said, grabbing his beret and getting out of the car.

He went to the front of the tiny building with window-mounted air conditioning units and peeling plastic siding. He grabbed the door and pulled, but it didn't move. He yanked again, nothing.

"What the hell?" He said. Then he saw the weathered paper sign attached at eye level. "Oh." He slumped and headed back to the car.

"What's up?" Owens asked.

"They're closed, for good," Grimes said.

"Oh, man, that sucks," Owens said. "Any other good burger joints?"

"It doesn't matter," Grimes grabbed the wheel. "Most of the usual fast food chains are here."

"You used to come here a lot?"

"It was our go-to," Grimes confirmed. "For celebrations, lamentations, and everything in between."

"So where do you go to lament your lamentation spot?"

"They got a new Sonic since the last time I was here," Grimes shrugged.

"Sounds great."

It wasn't great. The service was slow and rude. The food was cold and soggy. But it filled the hole.

"I'm sorry, Sir," Grimes said as they got back on the road.

"Did you cook it?" the Captain replied.

"Well, I promised you a good burger, and then you got that."

"You didn't promise anything," the Captain informed him. "And you have no control over how they do their jobs. Don't worry about it. I’m OK."

"Yes, Sir."

They continued through town back into the prairie-flanked road and barbed wire. They drove out of town for about fifteen minutes when another showed up. This one was smaller and only filled with houses, big and small. A section of mobile homes could be seen as they were driving in.

"This is where we grew up when we were really little," Grimes said.

"You and Brown?" Owens asked.

"Yeah, I met him before we even went into kindergarten."

The housing began to look newer as they turned down a road and wound around a bend.

"They did it here too," Grimes said, stopping in the middle of the road.

In front of them stood a brown brick school that had a metal school adhered to it much later. The addition made the building twice its original size.

"I guess they had to grow." Captain Owens said.

"Yeah," Grimes gestured to the houses surrounding the school. "None of these were here. We used to play in the empty field surrounding the school. I used to hunt horny toads over there. I bet it's a kitchen now." He sighed heavily, "OK, let's go."

They left the school and drove a few blocks more, and Grimes stopped again, dropping the car into park. "Here it is."

"Are you ready?" Captain Owens asked.

Grimes sucked in a shaky breath, "Yes, Sir."

They got out of the car in front of a brown ranch-style house. Captain Owens got the package from the back seat. Together they mounted steps to the front door.

"Go ahead, Sergeant," Owens prompted Grimes.

With a shaky hand, Grimes pressed the doorbell and heard it faintly beyond the door. His body instinctively fell to attention as he waited.

Footfalls approached just before the door opened. She was small-framed and wiry. She wore an apron and wiped her hands on it from her dishes or some other chore they had interrupted. She looked up at the men standing on her stoop and stopped, just froze. All color drained from her face as she saw the flag Owens held.

"Hi, Mama Jean," Grimes said softly.

"NO!" She screamed like her soul had been torn out. Her knees failed, and she began to collapse. Grimes darted forward and caught her. Strong fingers wrapped to cling into his dress blue coat.

"He's gone, Mama Jean," Grimes whispered into her hair as he clung to her. Tears began to burn his eyes.

"No, no, no, no, no," she said over and over again.

Somehow they wound up inside and on a couch. Grimes was still holding Mama Jean, and Captain Owens still had that terrible flag. Both Mama Jean and Grimes were openly crying in each other's arms.

"Ma'am," Captain Owens said softly, kindly. "Can I get you some water or make you tea?"

Mama Jean hiccupped and spluttered something that sounded like a yes and gestured in a direction that might have been a kitchen.

She gained more control and asked Grimes, "What happened to my baby?"

"He saved me," it was a weak whimper of an answer.

Mama Jean sat up and looked at Grimes, tears and snot running down her face. She wiped them away with a tissue, then, "What do you mean?"

Grimes wouldn't look her in the eyes. "We were going out to get a Stryker on a tow truck. It had a busted axle. We had our guard detail, and it was a secure zone. It shouldn't have been a big deal." A fresh deluge of tears exploded from Grimes's eyes. "Mike was on the truck, working the winch, when he spotted something," Grimes’s voice stuttered and broke.

Mama Jean took the Army Sergeant in her arms like she used to when he was a boy and rocked gently. "It's all right honey, you can tell me."

Grimes sniffled and tried several times before the words came. "He saw something and yelled 'Shooter!' as he dove off the truck and landed on me." Grimes pulled away from Mama Jean and stared right at her. "He dove into the sniper's bullet that was coming for me. He saved my life." Sobs tore through Grimes, racking his entire body, "He died because of me."

"Honey, don't you dare ever think that." Mama Jean smashed Grimes into a hug. "He was a soldier through and through, and he did what soldiers do. You don't get to waste the gift he gave you blaming his death on yourself, do you understand?" She pulled back and forced his eyes up. "Do you?"

Grimes couldn't speak, could hardly breathe, the sobs were too strong. He bobbed his head up and down and mouthed, "Yes, Ma'am."

"Good," Mama Jean said as they resumed holding each other.

They stayed there for a long time, hours. Captain Owens didn't say a word other than to fill tea or offer tissues. Sobs and tears had turned to happy stories and laughter as they remembered their lost loved one.

Mama Jean insisted they stay for dinner, and Captain Owens insisted on helping make it. They had baked chicken and herb mashed potatoes. It was delicious.

Finally, once the stories had seemed to hit a natural, warm pause. Captain Owens looked to Grimes. "I think it is time to go. Thank you, Ma'am, for your hospitality. I am truly sorry for your loss." He stood and snapped a sharp salute to Mama Jean. "On behalf of the United States Army, we thank you for your son's service and sacrifice."

Mama Jean wrapped the officer in a hug right under his salute. "Thank you for your kindness and bringing Steven home for this."

"Of course, Ma'am," Captain Owens replied.

They left the warm glow of the house to the dark street by the car and crawled back into it. Grimes looked to the chaplain's cross on Captain Owens's lapel. "Thank you, Sir, for everything today."

Owens nodded to Grimes, "Sometimes, we have to look backward before we can move on."

And then, they moved on.

October 20, 2022 02:16

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1 comment

PETER Inserra
15:10 Oct 28, 2022

I started reading and kept asking myself where you were going with your story. Eventually when they got to Mama Jean's house I felt so bad for Grimes and Mama. I cannot imagine the emotions and heartbreak that goes into delivering the worst possible news in the world to a survivor. Then I wondered if this is written from personal experience which would make the emotions even stronger? Great job Aaron! Great story!


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