Jason Stricker sat behind the wheel of his aging minivan. The air mattress in back, properly angled across the folded-down seats, could have held his bony frame, but he didn’t sleep on it. He wasn’t prevented by the clothing piled on top, or the books splayed in layers that rearranged themselves every time the vehicle turned, or even the old food wrappers and cans that added their fetid miasma to the aroma of unwashed body and dirty clothes that permeated the vehicle. Jason couldn’t sleep in back because then he wouldn’t be ready.
Much better to stay behind the wheel, keys in the ignition, tire iron on the passenger seat. He spent his nights on the borderland of sleep, roused by the frequent arrival and departure of the big rigs. Headlights sweeping across his windshield, engines rumbling enough to shake the pavement and the hissing of air brakes pulled him back from the abyss every few minutes. It was better than the nightmares.
It was funny. He couldn’t remember having a single dream when he was over there. When it was time to sleep, he closed his eyes and opened them again, and the night was gone. The nightmares all came when he was wide awake.
The best day of his life, and the worst, happened when an IED exploded under the first truck in his convoy. He knew how to assess casualties and spend his time where he could make a difference. Leave the guys with light injuries; they’ll make it without help. Leave the ones that are too far gone; they’ll never make it at all. He saved three lives that day. That was the best part. He lost one. That was the worst.
It was the one he lost that haunted him: Randy Richards. The kind of guy that made you break the rules, the kind that got to be your friend whether you wanted him to or not. He was the one who started feeding that three-legged stray and before you knew it, the camp had a mascot. Totally against the rules. That was Randy.
Jason might have saved him too, had just knelt beside him to assess the belly wound, when a bullet slammed his helmet hard enough to knock him over and another ripped through his thigh, cracking the bone. Just before he lost consciousness, he looked into Randy’s face, there beside him in the dirt.
“Medic!” Randy strained a whisper through pink froth. It was impossible to tell if he was calling for himself or for Jason. Then, “Tell Steff I love her….”
Jason left on a transport headed for Germany. Randy left under a flag.
Jason’s body took months to heal. After his discharge, he went home to his parents in Maine. They were so, so grateful that he made it back. But his inability to focus, to look for work, to sleep through the night without waking up in a sweat, worried them. His dad took the hunting rifles to a friend’s house just in case, and the knives disappeared from the kitchen counter.
Jason knew he wasn’t normal anymore, whatever normal was. He looked at the high school pennants on his bedroom walls and couldn’t remember that kid who had been the hero quarterback. Whatever he was looking for, he wouldn’t find it there.
Finally, after one hard night when he woke everyone up with his screams, he asked his dad if he could borrow the old van.
“Sure, Jason. What for?”
“I just have to move. I can’t stay here anymore. It could be a while before you see it again.”
“No!” his mother said, her voice near breaking.
“What about money?” his dad asked. “How will you buy gas and food?”
So they went to the bank and Jason signed his dad on to his account. That was the deal. Jason would call his mother and let her know he was okay and his dad would wire what money he needed to wherever he landed. He had saved most of what he made in the army, and it would last a while.
At first Jason’s nomad life hadn’t been bad. He got to like truck stops. The good ones had all night diners, showers, coin-operated laundry machines and a Western Union station. He would eat whatever the diner offered on special that night and fall asleep in the back of the van.
For the first few weeks, he thought he might be winning, might be driving fast enough and far enough to leave the panic, the anger and the unexpected flashbacks behind like so much road kill. That was the way he wanted his memories: flat, dead and disappearing in the rear view mirror.
Often he would stay a few days, using a truck stop as home base while he explored the area. He liked it when he could find a used bookstore. He would ask for a recommendation and take the first thing suggested as long as it didn’t cost much. Sometimes he felt like a voyeur, standing outside the lighted window of someone else’s interests.
Then the dreams started again. He didn’t remember most of them, but often his last vision before waking was Randy’s bloody face saying “Get a move on. You can’t stay here.”
He would wake with a start and then realize it had only been his own thoughts in Randy’s mouth. After a while, the vision didn’t scare him anymore. It was almost as if they were friends again, just two guys on a road trip, only one of them was dead. After a breakfast of bacon and eggs, he would get back in the van and drive another day.
He had started driving in the middle of the summer and crisscrossed the country for months, wearing out the interstate. He learned the next best truck stop from whomever was friendly in the last one until he didn’t have to ask anymore. He went down the east coast and up the Mississippi then took I-94 across the states bordering Canada. When he reached Washington State, he dropped south to Oregon and California, then headed back. He took I-80 when he crossed the plains on his eastern journey. He stayed away from the desert. He’d seen enough sand.
Whenever he pulled into a truck stop, he asked his invisible buddy, “How’s this place?” Receiving no answer, he would stay the night. And so he drove from the green fields of summer through the amber fruits of the harvest, from the blazing trees of autumn to the winter skeletons of their denuded branches.
As he neared the end of the year, almost eight months from his last day in Iraq, Jason knew it was almost over. He had pulled inside himself as far as he could go. At some point he had stopped shaving, then bathing became less frequent and laundry turned into a random event. People at the truck stops gave him side glances and quickly stepped away. He ate in his vehicle. He felt too vulnerable sleeping in the back, so he moved his bedroom to the driver’s seat.
He considered running his vehicle into an overpass. If he went fast enough, it would probably be quick. And his parents could believe it was just an accident. That was important.
His mother and dad would be sad, but what kind of a son did he make anyway? You’re a useless bum, he told himself. Just taking up space and burning gas. Not working. Not playing. Not anything. You’re a zero. They’re better off getting on with their lives, not worrying about you into their old age.
A part of his brain that he thought was dead latched on to the idea and considered the plan. He didn’t want them to know how far he’d fallen. They might feel guilty, and this wasn’t their fault. He needed to clean out the van, wash the clothes, shave and shower. The last thing he could give them was the illusion that he’d been almost normal.
“How’s this place?” he said to no one as he pulled into the EconoLux, a full service truck stop on the outskirts of Des Moines. He hadn’t seen Randy for a few days. Maybe a week. He began to wonder if, now that he’d made up his mind, he would have some peace.
“You used to live somewhere around here, didn’t you?” he said into the still air, and he suddenly saw his buddy’s face, pressed into the dirt of that sunbaked road, whispering a dying request. He hadn’t remembered it until now. He wasn’t sure if it was even real; maybe it was something else his addled brain cooked up. Why remember now? Just one more example of how useless he was.
He pulled up next to a dumpster near the back of the lot and opened the rear doors of the van. With an angry determination, he cleaned the trash from his vehicle, crawling through the interior, feeling under the seats, hating himself more with every petrified French fry and dented soft drink can he found. He couldn’t bear to throw the books away. He stacked them along the side and promised himself he would find a Goodwill box for them before the end.
He grabbed a duffle bag from the back of the van and went to find the showers. There, he stood under the hot water and soaped and scrubbed until his skin was pink and raw. He trimmed his beard so he didn’t look so much like a refugee and pulled his hair back in a knot at the back of his neck. In the duffle bag, he found a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt that were wrinkled but cleaner than what he had on. Like getting ready for church on a Sunday. Ritual cleansing.
Tomorrow, he would find a barber shop and get a nice short haircut. His dad would appreciate that. Then he’d start driving and look for just the right place.
For tonight, he was going to have one last meal, then one last feral night, crouching in the dark cave of his van, waiting for Randy.
He crawled into the front seat and pulled the sleeping bag over himself. Sleet began spattering the windshield, pecking with determined ticks that sounded like a distant fire fight. The parking lot started to fill up. Nobody was driving in this weather if they could get off the road. The keys were in the ignition, the tire iron on the passenger seat. Ready for anything.
Except the dreams. He had just dozed off when Randy’s face floated into view outside the door, looking bloody and determined. “Just wait. I’m coming for you.” Jason pulled himself back to consciousness and wondered why he still felt panic. His mind was made up. He was going to remove himself from this endless cycle of helplessness and dreams.
He drifted back to sleep and dreamt again of the hot Iraqi street, the tense convoy, the hyper vigilance, noticing every movement, every noise, every unexpected hump or object along the route, the adrenaline induced suspicion of seeing everything and trusting nothing.
Suddenly, a crash! A screech of metal on metal. His vehicle jumped and shuddered. Jason woke gasping for breath, desperately sucking air into lungs that didn’t want to work. He clawed his way out from under the air bag that had punched him in the chest and tried to open the door of his van. It wouldn’t move.
A veil of steam rose outside the window, obscuring everything but the dim outline of a sedan that had skidded in the icy parking lot and slid nose first into his vehicle.
And there was Randy’s face, projected onto the swirls of vapor; and there was Randy’s voice, loud and demanding. “Medic! Medic!”
Focus! The sedan had pinned his driver’s door shut. He scrambled across to the passenger door but the impact had pushed his vehicle several feet until it was inches away from the pick-up beside it.
He felt the tire iron underneath him on the passenger seat and pulled it out. With more strength than he ever remembered having, he swung it against the driver side window, once to create a brilliant spider web of crazed lines and again to shatter the web into glass jewels that cascaded onto the hood of the sedan. He pulled himself through the window and stepped onto the hood of the car that blocked his door just as a woman stumbled out of the driver’s seat.
She looked dazed as she hung on the door for balance. Jason slid off the hood and stood on the other side of the car door. He stared over the top of the door frame into wide blue eyes, trying to check pupil size in the dim light, looking for signs of a concussion.
“You’re going to be all right. What’s your name?” Not “Are you okay?” He wanted to ask something she didn’t have to think about.
“Helen. Watson. We hit a patch of ice and the car spun around. I couldn’t control it.”
“It’s all right. You’re going to be fine.” In the field, he would have moved on by now, looking for someone who needed him more.
As if his mind had reached out and touched hers, she suddenly cried, “My sister!” and started to dive back into the car.
“Whoa, Helen,” Jason grabbed her shoulders. “Are you a doctor?”
“No,” Then, with hope in her voice, she asked, “Are you?”
“I’m closer to it than you are. Call 911. I’ll see to your sister.”
The steam from the cracked radiator had dissipated and Jason could see a small crowd beginning to gather at the periphery of the scene. They looked curious and concerned, hovering as if they might be needed. He made note of them as he hoisted himself back onto the sedan’s hood and crossed to the passenger side.
Yanking open the passenger door, he was confronted by a pair of frightened eyes a shade darker than those of the driver. The passenger was conscious and alert. That was good.
“What’s your name?”
“Stephanie.” She had no trouble saying the word. No respiratory distress. He placed his fingers lightly on her carotid artery. Pulse a little fast, but strong.
“Good, Stephanie. Just relax. You’re going to be all right.” She showed no visible injuries, but he couldn’t see all of her. The air bag was still hiding her body below the shoulders. “You just hang in there.”
He could hear Helen, outside the car beside the driver’s door, using her cell phone. “We need an ambulance. My sister….”
Just then, the passenger moaned.
“Okay, Stephanie. Where does it hurt?”
“My baby,” she said, pushing the last of the air bag away to reveal the rounded belly that foretold an imminent birth. “I think my water broke. Helen? Helen!”
“I’m here, sweetie,” her sister said, reappearing in the driver’s seat. She held the cell phone to her ear with her left hand and brushed strands of hair from Stephanie’s face with her right. “Are you okay?”
A sharp intake of breath, expelled in a groan, answered her. “Oh Helen…I think this baby’s coming.”
“Take it easy, Stephanie,” Jason said. “The paramedics will be here soon and we’re going to get you somewhere safe and warm.”
“Oh, no!” Helen said, into the phone. She looked at Jason. “There’s a big pile-up on the expressway. All the emergency teams are working there. It will be at least an hour, probably more, before anyone can get here.”
Stephanie moaned again. “This baby…is not…waiting,” she panted.
In that moment, Jason was back in Iraq. He felt like someone had opened up his skull and poured a dose of purpose down his spine. The warmth of it flooded through his innards and seeped out his pores, hardening his bones and enveloping him like armor. Nobody else was coming to help this lady. It was on him.
He leaned over and examined his patient, apologizing when he used his pocket knife to cut away the clothing he couldn’t easily remove. After confirming what Stephanie’s instincts already knew, he motioned to Helen to hand him the phone.
“My name is Jason Stricker. I’ve got an EMT-B certification and four years of field experience as an Army medic.” He briefly and efficiently described Stephanie’s medical condition, dilation and time between contractions. “I didn’t deliver a lot of babies in Iraq. Do you have someone that can talk me through it?”
He listened for a minute then said “Right. I’m going to move her indoors. About fifteen minutes.”
Handing the phone back to Helen, he told her, “We’re going to call them back as soon as we get your sister inside. They’re going to patch us through to an obstetrician. You’re in charge of communication. Can you do that?’
She nodded. “She isn’t due for another two weeks. We were just out doing a little last minute shopping.”
“Yeah,” Jason told her. “We think we can plan, but sometimes things just happen when they’re ready.”
He stood up and considered his options. The sleet was a quarter inch deep; the nearest building was two hundred feet away. Even with a makeshift stretcher, he couldn’t let anyone carry her. People with nothing to carry but themselves were slipping and falling. He needed something like a sled.
Ignoring the icy prickles that stung his bare skin and nested in his hair and beard, he squinted at the small crowd that was keeping its distance across the traffic lane. He was looking for someone capable who only needed an invitation.
“You. Guy in the leather jacket. What’s your name?”
“Paul,” came the response in a firm voice. Paul’s collar was turned up against the sleet and a black watch cap protected his head. He was huddled with hands in pockets, but his boots looked like they might give him some traction on the ice. And there was something about the way he stood, even in civvies hunkered against the weather, that made Jason think he wasn’t long out of uniform.
“Paul, I’m Jason. I need you to help me move this lady. Can you get over here?”
“Sure thing, pal.”
Without waiting, Jason turned and groped his way to the rear doors of his own van. He popped them open and climbed in, feeling for the air mattress. It was half deflated from neglect, but thanks to his recent clean-up job, he knew where the air pump was. In a few minutes, the tubes were as plump as they had ever been. He pushed the narrow mattress out the door to Paul, who by that time was waiting for it. Then he crawled to the front of the van and snagged his sleeping bag, pulling it out after himself.
Together, Jason and Paul helped Stephanie to a prone position on the air mattress and covered her with the sleeping bag.
“I can walk,” she insisted, before a sharp intake of breath that signaled another contraction.
“Nobody can walk,” Jason told her. “This parking lot is pure ice. Paul and I are going to slide you over to the building there. Then I’m going to help you get comfortable and wait for the paramedics. Or the baby. Whichever comes first.
“Paul, let’s go.” The two men, half crouching, half crawling, slipping and scrambling, pulled the air mattress and its passenger along the slick ice, navigating parked cars and traffic lanes. Helen followed as quickly as the slippery pavement allowed. When they reached the entrance to the diner, which was protected by a small overhang, they stopped and let Stephanie stand up to walk inside, the sleeping bag wrapped around her. They had gained a small audience, and a smattering of hand claps punctuated their arrival.
A plump woman in her forties with curly blond hair and a name tag that said “Manager, Katie M.” met them at the door. “I’ve been watching from the window. What can we do to help?”
Jason had moved into a near-forgotten zone, a place where he knew what to do and everything came easy. Like when he was a kid, riding his bike no-handed through the twisty streets of his home town. Like when he was a soldier.
“We need a private place with enough room for her to lie down and enough space for me and her sister to help her.”
“Employee break room,” Katie said without hesitation. “There’s an old couch that opens into a bed if you need it.”
She led the way, with Jason and Paul walking on either side of Stephanie. When they arrived, Katie opened up the couch and stood back as Stephanie eased herself down on the edge.
“Good,” Jason said. He looked at the wall phone. ”We’re going to be calling 911 again. Does that phone have a speaker function?”
“Yes. There’s a button you press.”
“All right. Helen, call 911 again and see if they’re ready to patch the doctor in.” Turning to Katie, he continued. “I need a few things. Clean towels, lots of them. A warm blanket, two would be better. Something to sanitize my hands, anti-bacterial soap like you use to stock the restrooms or even alcohol wipes. And some sharp metal scissors. Have someone in the kitchen start to boil water in a clean pot. The scissors have to be boiled for at least twenty minutes before I use them.”
“Is that it?” Katie asked, looking a bit dazed.
“For now. Paul, you got all that?”
“Got it, doc.” Paul grinned. “Let’s go, ma’am. You point me and I’ll do the fetch and carry.”
As the room cleared, Stephanie suddenly groaned with another contraction and Jason turned his attention to her. He asked questions about her condition and medical history that the doctor would need to know. She grunted and moaned the answers, sometimes just nodding or shaking her head.
“That’s good, Stephanie. Your body knows how to do this. You’ll do fine.”
“They just put Doctor Stewart on the line,” Helen said, hitting the speaker button and putting the receiver back on the hook.
“Doctor, this is Jason Stricker,” he said, receiving a tinny reply in a male voice. He quickly relayed all the information he had garnered from his patient. “She’s close, Doctor.”
As if on cue, Stephanie moaned and panted. “It’s coming. I can’t wait.”
Helen held her sister’s hand. “You’re doing great, sweetie. Breathe, the way we practiced in class, slow and deep.”
“Doctor, we’re crowning,” Jason said, just as Paul returned with the supplies.
The birth progressed rapidly and normally, with Helen coaching Stephanie and Jason keeping the doctor apprised of their progress.
When the head emerged, the doctor told Jason to check whether the umbilical cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck. “It happens all the time.”
“Yes, Doctor. Looks like it’s wrapped around twice. Pretty tight.”
“Okay,” the voice from the phone said. “We see that sometimes, too. Ask the mother to stop pushing for a minute. I’ll walk you through it.”
In the end, he had a somersault birth, with the baby flipping out into the world while he held its head steady next to its mother’s thigh. Then he worked to gently ease the cord from around the baby’s neck. A corner of his mind cataloged the fact that things might have gone far differently if he, or at least someone with his skills, hadn’t been there.
After that, it was textbook aftercare, final success heralded by the wail of a new voice in the world.
“Good job, Stephanie,” he told her, as he placed the baby skin to skin on her chest, covering them both with a blanket. “You’ve got yourself a brand new boy.”
Helen reached out to caress the baby’s head. “You did good, girl. Randy would be so proud.”
Jason froze. “Randy?”
“Her husband,” Helen explained. “He was killed in Iraq. He never even knew she was pregnant.”
Jason felt his world reorganize, like a kaleidoscope freezing into a new and intricate design. Though grown from shards of glass, the vision was so balanced and exquisite that it couldn’t be accidental. He knew the answer before he asked.
“Stephanie, what’s your last name?”
“Richards,” she said. “Didn’t I tell you?”
“I knew Randy. I was with him when he died. He gave me a message for you.”
After the EMTs finally arrived and carried off mother and baby, and the new aunt with them, after he and Paul sat in a restaurant booth and polished off a pot of coffee between them, after the salt trucks passed through, giving the roads some traction and Paul left to continue his journey, Jason sat alone. He stared through the window into the dark parking lot as flakes of snow shimmered in the feeble lights that glowed atop their tall poles.
He hadn’t told Stephanie everything. Hadn’t told her about seeing Randy in his dreams. Hadn’t told her about being hounded across the country by Randy’s bloody face. The story was unbelievable enough when she thought it was only a small miracle.
He did tell Paul, in the small hours of the morning, and Paul had understood.
“Maybe we all brought ghosts back with us,” he said, watching steam rise from the dark pool of coffee in his cup. “On the good days, I feel like I’m making up for some of the living they missed.”
Jason stared at the checkered vinyl table covering until its pattern began to blur and swirl. “What if there are no good days?”
“Today was a good day.” The comment floated in the air between them like a great winged bird riding an updraft, until it settled and rested in Jason’s mind.
“I guess it was,” he admitted. “We made a difference didn’t we?”
“It was mostly you, but yeah. Things went better because we were here.”
There was another long stretch of silence before Jason said, “I guess this what a good day feels like. I almost forgot.”
A deep blue was just beginning to replace black in the sky when Jason thought he saw Randy’s face again, mirrored in the window pane. No blood this time. Just that grin that made him friends wherever he went.
“Thanks, buddy,” Jason heard from somewhere back in his head. “Heading out now. Time to go home.” The image faded and once again, Jason didn’t know which of them that last comment was for. But he knew that Randy’s visits were over.
And he knew he was done running. He wasn’t worthless or useless after all. Turned out, he was necessary, perhaps in ways he couldn’t imagine until he had another good day. He wasn’t whole, but he was worth some work.