The bomb went off just down and opposite the road where he momentarily stood, facing outward, rifle clutched half-heartedly, waiting for the enemy he knew would never come running over the ridge. Shrapnel struck liberally over the left side of his body. Whoever made the bomb must have been proud of the spread and devastation. He had dropped instantly, and the searing pain in his limbs and face kept him from standing back up. His hands, now free of his weapon, clawed outward reaching for a respite. Nothing went through his mind, not of the proper order of first aid, nor the three types of bleeding: venous, capillary, and arterial, nor the fact that he had all three. The hours spent in classes meant nothing to him, had no way of grounding him to this universe as the blood trickling over his clenched eyelids filtered the already diffuse yellow light into a pallid crimson darkness.
He was vaguely aware of pounding feet, jostling, rending of fabric, metallic taste, and a deep pinprick. Then he slept.
Weeks after returning to America, and days after walking without the use of crutches, he was allowed a temporary return to civilian life. His parents rolled a bag full of trinkets he had collected from the generals and important people who visited the hospital. In his pocket he kept the purple medal they had pinned on him while he lay in bed, opiates coursing though his veins. Another paper bag held two rattling yellow bottles—two pills every four hours; one in times of extreme pain. Tucked deep away were rolls of gauze, white tape, moist pads for direct placement on open wounds. The head nurse made him and his parents promise to change his last four bandages at least once a day, twice if the discharge was heavy enough. He had seen so many nurses and orderlies working over him, cleaning up his once uncontrollable defecation in the confusing days after the explosion, then later with deft hands snipping at black threads criss-crossing his skin, that he jokingly said he could be a registered nurse. In reality he never wanted to see the underside of human skin ever again.
The two weeks elapsed, much of it spent in front of the television, watching without thinking until visions of his war flashed before his eyes forcing him to mash the off button. One night he went to dinner and a movie with a few of his high school friends. They were happy to see him again and hugged him lightly, minding the noticeable bandages. They asked questions like How was it over there? They treating you all right? without ever asking the one they all wondered: Why did you go over there? Once the important parts of his story were told, all of the easily digestible and non-gory anecdotes exhausted, the conversation turned towards former classmates and their goings-on. He laughed when required, nodded to the beat of the conversation, stared into nothing during the silences, and fulfilled his social duty without ever exposing the turmoil underlying his conscious thought. During the movie, protected by darkness and singular field of vision, a few tears leaked out before he silenced them with a white pill flushed down with soda.
Every morning and night he surveyed the newly painted canvas of his body, the pits, furrows, splotches, which, only a few months ago, stood out in his mind’s eye as signs of bravery and virility. Now he was hesitant to extend his left arm and leg as the taut skin disturbed sensitive nerves, sending out alien shocks the like of which healthy bodies never experience. With quivering hands he sought out his face’s newly defining features: two perfectly rectangular bandages, one running from cheekbone to nose, the other from mid-jaw to chin, under which lay the oozing horror of his existence. He knew one day they would heal and he could no longer cover them from inquisitive eyes. From now until death, eyes will be drawn away from his blue eyes to two thick jagged lines running parallel across his face. No amount of plastic surgery, sunglasses, or baseball caps will ever truly erase the result of a brief moment of time—milliseconds—the culmination of a series of ill-thought decisions by himself and others.
At the end of the two weeks his parents left him to limp slowly towards the airplane that would spirit him back to the hospital and military life. He still had some recovery ahead, a few cosmetic procedures to endure, but one day he would be discharged and would have to make real decisions about his life. He contemplated his future and the role he would assume. Would he retain the warrior spirit which had already etched its signature upon his surface, or would he reject it and grasp outward into a world and philosophy hereto foreign to him, of which he could never interact without the scars of body and spirit forcefully altering the way he is perceived?