I pulled a bottle of beer from the old refrigerator in the small clapboard house I shared with Pete Wilson. We were paramedics — well at least Pete still was. Today had been my last day on the job after almost a year. I'd been laid off. Last one hired — first one fired you know. So I was sitting at home alone on a Saturday night weighing my options and feeling sorry for myself.
The Captain was genuinely sorry to have to let me go but with budget cuts and all the county just couldn't afford me. Not like I made a lot of money. Beginning paramedics around here only get about $25,000 a year anyway. It didn't matter that I had more trauma experience than anyone in the county, probably the state, except for my best friend Pete.
Two and a half years running around Afghanistan as a Corpsman with the Marines and Navy had given me an up front and personal look at every form of trauma. I had patched and stitched Marines, Navy, NATO forces, civilians, enemy soldiers who had been trying to kill us just minutes before, and kids caught in the crossfire or who were too close when a mine or roadside bomb went off. Kids were the toughest — not that they were tough — it was that seeing and trying to save smashed up kids does something to one's psyche. It's hard to get those images out of your head. I'd probably still be in Afghanistan had I not been in the wrong place at the wrong time. They gave me a medal for covering a wounded Recon Marine with my body as the mortars slammed in. Yup, a medal and a purple heart and six months more or less in Bethesda Naval Hospital with my own busted up leg and lots of chunks of metal in my right side and backside. Without my body armor, I'd have been toast.
Maybe it was fortuitous it happened. I was on an extended second tour of Afghanistan with a special designator to my Naval Enlisted Classification as a Special Amphibious Recon Corpsman, or SARC which allowed me to join the special operations units. Every day I pressed my luck a little harder. I volunteered for every patrol and shit mission. I worked out of firebases and outposts everywhere, teamed up with Force Recon guys and SEALS. I was six one and stick thin. Looking at photos from the time I looked like a walking skeleton. I was also in demand. These guys trusted me to take care of them and I trusted them to keep me alive. All in all not a bad arrangement.
I had managed to put on some weight since I was discharged, although most came from increased muscle mass from the weight training at the fire station. I also ran a lot. I needed to prove to myself my leg was as good as new. It really wasn't, but the docs all along the line plus at Bethesda had done a damn fine job. I almost felt guilty getting even a small VA pension. Of course it would now help to keep me solvent until another job came along.
I had been so caught up in the war I had no time for anything or anyone. The only time I took R&R was when my Skipper ordered me out of the country on a cargo flight that was headed to Darwin in north Australia. There's not much there and I was bored shitless, but after a couple of days I met an Australian girl. She fucked me senseless the rest of the time. So much for rest and recuperation. The Skipper said I looked worse than when I left except for "the shit-eaten grin". He remarked he'd never seen me smile before. He was probably right. The week-long op that started the next day wiped the smile away.
Most of the guys I served with considered me one crazy s.o.b. And that's saying something considering the company I kept. But they always wanted me along on those missions where the shit can come down on you in a hurry and it might be awhile before you could get extracted. I was a crazy and I pretty much kept to myself. The war made me crazy, although I pretty much started off that way. Of course I'd been fucked over by a girl — we all had or would be. That was the ironic truth. The new guys would come in and get those loving letters from home and then in a few months the letters and emails would taper off then "ka-pow" the Dear John would arrive - mostly delivered by email these days. Maybe I was lucky that I got booted by the love of my life before I joined up — saved a lot of wear and tear and distraction. Plus the hunk of carbon that had replaced my heart was probably bullet proof.
I got my "Dear John" email in college. I didn't sign up for the Navy in a fit of pique. No I'd had several months to stew about it and finish my associate degree in emergency medical services at Oklahoma State University before I joined for five years.
After my basic training and Hospital Corpsman School at Great Lakes Naval Training Center I was assigned to the Field Medical Training Battalion at Camp Pendleton, California, where I was taught to be a Marine. Holy shit! The Marines believe every Marine is a rifleman to include their Navy brethren who provide the medical services. For seven weeks the Marine instructors kicked our "pussy squid asses." I discovered the Marine emblem of eagle globe and anchor really meant, "Get on the ball shirt bird ... or I'll jam this anchor up your ass!"
My first tour of Afghanistan was with an infantry battalion and I found out that all that training time was well spent. Was it Medal of Honor Marine Chesty Puller who said, "The more you sweat in peace the less you bleed in war"? Very true.
I found I loved what I was doing and became an adrenaline junkie. Working accident scenes and other disasters while I was learning to be a paramedic was nothing compared to the rush of doing your job under fire. Plus it was with a bunch of young guys like me armed to the teeth; fighting boredom and the Taliban, in perhaps, equal measures. Oh yeah I was armed too ... every Marine is a rifleman ... None of that Geneva Convention crap — the bad guys killed you just as dead whether you were a corpsman or not and you definitely didn't want to let those bastards capture you. I carried an HK 45 and a Kalashnikov AKMS — both had a lot of stopping power, unlike the wimpy 9mm Berettas and the 5.56 rifles. I always carried a few grenades for good measure, and there were times when I was damned glad I did. The hand grenade — a weapon for all seasons and situations.
So there I was at home on a Saturday night unemployed and without Allison. I sat in the overstuffed arm chair with the faded blue upholstery and took a long pull on my beer and stared at the fire in the small brick fireplace. It was fall and the nights were getting cool. I was breaking my own rule. I could have no more than one beer a day. This was my second and I usually savored each one. But what the hell I wasn't going anywhere tonight and I was sleeping alone. My first beer was at dinner with the emergency services crew, the guys from the fire station, and a handful of local and state cops and a few of the staff from the hospital ER — all good people who I had worked with day after day. It was my send-off dinner, although I really had no firm plans to go anywhere. I was going to miss working with them something fierce. After the dinner Betti Taylor one of the ER nurses made it very clear that I didn't have to spend tonight alone. She was tall and dark-haired and beautiful and the subject of a lot of fantasies around the firehouse. She flirted with me every time I was in her ER and we had dated briefly just after I got back. We had been "friends with benefits" for a time.
Tonight I wasn't really tempted. I had all the woman I wanted now, or should I say again, and I really was a one woman man, although I sometimes wondered if Allison was a one man woman. She swore that years ago she had made a horrible mistake and that all eighteen year olds make mistakes and are stupid about love. I guess.
As I sat there watching the fire, I thought about the phone call I'd just received. It was from Rich Davies, a Marine officer I'd served with in Afghanistan. He'd been the Recon unit commander I'd been with when I got hit and we'd stayed in touch. He was the last face I saw before the Medivac took off after they dragged my sorry ass back to the fire base. He'd wished me luck and said to look him up when I got back, and that I wasn't too bad... "For a squid." Rich was a reservist and a fire Captain in Carlsbad California and when I emailed I'd been laid off he was quick to phone me. He had an opening for a paramedic — at least a 90 day temporary position while they recruited for the vacant position. If I took the temp job I'd have an inside track for the permanent position and it paid a hell of a lot more than the job that had just been yanked out from under me. The thought of living in a small sun-drenched town on the coast of southern California also appealed, plus he needed me "yesterday".
I had been to Carlsbad a number of times during my two assignments at Camp Pendleton since it was only a few miles south of the Main Gate. It was just far enough away to not be a "service" town like Oceanside. It had a fantastic wide beach overlooked by lots of million dollar homes. A section of Interstate Five cut through the eastern side of town and was Rich's responsibility. It was a busy place with lots of demands on emergency crews. But of course there were complications.
Complications, such as leaving the town where I grew up. Even though I'd been gone for over almost five years I still reconnected with the town and its culture very quickly. Funny though, had I not been wounded I might never have come back but as John Lennon said, "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans."
My parents and friends all lived in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, population about 14,000. It's in eastern Oklahoma in what's called the "Lakes Country" — lots of green hills and trees, in the heart of Cherokee County. My dad taught history at Northeastern State University and my mother taught over at the high school. My younger sister Emily came home after nurses training and got a job at the hospital. And then there was Allison.
After I was discharged and finally home from the hospital Allison had reestablished herself as my best friend and my love after our five-years of being apart. A lot had happened in our lives since the break up and we had grown up a lot. It hadn't been easy for me, and I sure as hell hadn't made it easy for her. But she persisted and over the past year we'd reestablished our relationship. Just a few days ago I'd gotten myself together and finally bought her an engagement ring. I planned to give it to her and ask her to marry me when she got back from a teacher's conference in Tulsa. Hopefully that would be tomorrow, Sunday.
Well that is if she was still speaking to me. She hadn't bothered to call when she got there Friday, and she'd ignored my call Friday night. We'd had a fight - the first serious one since we became exclusive last Christmas.
Allison taught first grade for the last couple of years since she graduated from the University of Texas. Now she was getting some kind of new teacher award at the conference at a dinner and she'd invited me to go along. It was all very last minute and I was already scheduled to work and the farewell dinner was set too. She had agreed to be my date for my dinner and then this award thing and conference came up. So we were both miffed. She left Friday morning. I tried to talk to her that morning as she was leaving. I drove over to her parent's house and caught her as she was putting her bag in the trunk of her Toyota.
"I just don't understand what's so important about this farewell dinner anyway ... they laid you off and you really don't have to work one last day. I'm sure Pete would be happy to take your place tomorrow..."
She was getting herself wound up again. We'd already had this discussion and neither of us was going to budge.
"Allison ... I've worked with these folks for the last year and this has been laid on for a month ... it's the only time when everyone could get together. Remember? And you did say you'd go with me..."
She didn't want to hear that.
"Jake, getting this award means a lot to me. I'm new to teaching and I've worked my butt off being the best ... and their going to honor my work ... why can't you do something for me for a change — you know like work me into your schedule?"
Oh shit! I thought. She's bringing up the big guns. We always worked around my shifts at the fire department and I was always on call. I thought she'd gotten used to it and I really had no idea how much she resented the kind of twenty four-seven job I had. I thought if you loved someone you'd be happy in what they did. I was certainly happy to be in love with the most beautiful elementary school teacher in the world, of course she didn't have my crazy hours.
"I'm sorry I can't miss this dinner and Pete's out of town anyway."
She looked at me, fire in her green eyes.
"I'll bet Betti Taylor will be there and I know she'll be happy to be your date!" She spat.
Where the hell did that come from? I thought. This just keeps getting worse.
"Allison ... that's nonsense and you know it!"
Then she said that word all men hate to hear from their woman.
She gave me a perfunctory kiss on the lips as I stood in the driveway outside her parent's house. The wind had come up and suddenly I felt a chill.
She got in her car and I could see the tears. She didn't look at me as she drove away. I could see her brushing the tears from her cheeks.
What a friggin crappy way to start the day! Fortunately it did get better and the few emergencies we handled were minor ones. Betti was indeed at the dinner and we chatted a lot. She was as engaging as she was pretty. But I chatted with all the women — no big deal. Unfortunately in a small town the gossip mill runs around the clock and by the time it gets back to my sister Emily, or Allison rumor would have us fucking on a table in the restaurant. Things broke up about eight thirty because everyone had work — such was the nature of police, fire, and emergency folks.
Emily didn't like Betti either since she saw her as a threat to Allison. She did have to grudgingly admit that Betti was a damned fine nurse and usually a pretty nice person, but since she was perceived as in the hunt for her brother at Allison's expense, she was the enemy.
Maybe that was true, but in the past Allison had done her best to destroy any feelings I had for her. Of course everyone in town knew that including Betti. So maybe by keeping her hand in, or tits in as I'd like to think, she could just bide her time until Allison did something stupid again. I certainly had fond memories of our time together, but I now saw my future with Allison.
I looked at the clock on the mantel. It was almost nine and Allison hadn't tried to call all day. It was our habit to at least check in when we arrived someplace, but no word from her. I had called earlier in the day from the fire station and left another message. No response. I thought about calling again, but hell it wasn't my fault. But for some reason it was my fault. Women!
Maybe I should just forget the whole marriage thing and just head for Carlsbad. Wouldn't Allison be surprised? That thought amused me for a few seconds before I rejected it, but it also dredged up old memories and opened some very old wounds.
I met Allison in the late summer, maybe a dozen years ago. I was fourteen and had just returned from my Uncle Joe's ranch near Texhoma in the Oklahoma Panhandle. I spent every summer there since I was twelve. The work was very hard but I loved being on horseback and working alongside the hands who were in my mind real cowboys. My only disappointment was that they didn't have six-shooters on their hips and there were no more Indians to fight. I did learn to shoot and ride and to hunt from my uncle and my cousins and the other hands on the ranch. The shooting became a life-saving skill later on.
So as we drove up the gravel drive on that end of summer day in my dad's truck, a beat up F-150, Allison was standing on the porch with Emily. They were both thirteen and Allison's family had moved in next door over the summer. Her parents had given up ranching up near Claremore and her dad had moved the family to Tahlequah so he could run the local Chevy dealership.
Over the summer she had become best friends with Emily.
I don't know if I would call it love at first sight, but I was certainly smitten with this tall auburn-haired girl with green eyes. She confessed that she had felt the same way when she saw me get out of my dad's truck and pull my saddle and duffel from the bed. I had grown a couple of inches over the summer and was almost as tall as my dad and now much taller than my sister who had also put on a growth spurt over the last few months.
Emily and Allison came walking up as I came out of our big barn after stowing everything in the tack room. We lived on the outskirts of town on one plus-acre lots. Each house was set well back from the county road and most had a long gravel driveway that lead to the ranch-style house. Usually there was some kind of barn or large shed in the back. The people who owned our house before my parents had kept horses and had built a barn. We just used it to store things. We had moved in when I was eight and that barn was the place for my imagination to run wild. It was the place for my cowboy fantasies to find root and it was also my get away place. On warm summer evenings I'd go into the loft and listen to the rain on the roof. It was also where I first kissed Allison.
Emily ran up and threw her arms around me and hugged me.
"Welcome home Jake!"
I hugged her back, not failing to notice that over the summer my sister had started turning into a woman.
She looked me up and down.
"I swear Jake; you've grown a couple of inches. Guess they must have fed you okay."
I nodded, watching Allison out of the corner of my eye.
"Yeah, Aunt Liz is a fantastic cook."
Emily looked at me and said with a smile, "Don't let mom hear you say that!"
We laughed. Remembering how the sisters always tried to outdo each other. She kept her arm around my waist as she introduced us.
"Allison, meet Jake ... my big brother."
I took my battered cowboy hat off and said,
"Hi, Allison." I didn't seem to be able to say anything more. She was dressed in light blue tank top and jeans and boots and she watched me with those hypnotic green eyes and smiled. My heart melted.
So we became the three Musketeers.
Allison was at our house as much as we were at her house. A couple of years later Pete Wilson became my best friend. He was new in town and we just hit it off. His family owned the pharmacy. Allison and Emily grudgingly accepted him, because he was my friend, plus my parents loved him. He came from a large family and his parents were always busy so I guess he found the love and acceptance at my house. Emily told me later that at first they were jealous of the time he took away from the three of us. I thought he was a great friend and he was. Pete was one of those tall good looking guys who had a self deprecating sense of humor and an uninhibited laugh. The girls at school found him irresistible, but he didn't take advantage. He dated but it was never serious until we were seniors. That year he was elected class president and he met the love of his life, Teri.
So through all this growing up Allison and I became a couple. I don't ever recall anything being said, we just were. The first time we had sex was one afternoon during my senior year. Somehow we found ourselves alone in my house and it seemed the most natural thing in the world. I was astonished to find out that Pete had come through a few months earlier with birth control pills for Allison. She had it all planned out. Making love to Allison was the most wonderful thing I'd ever experienced.
My last year of high school I got an internship with the Tahlequah fire department, so the summer after graduation I didn't go to Uncle Joe's ranch. It seemed only natural that Pete and I would end up at the firehouse together. We worked with the emergency medical techs and paramedics. I knew it was what I wanted to do and Pete decided he'd also found his calling. We were both accepted at Oklahoma State in their Paramedic program at Oklahoma City. Allison hated to see me go and much of the summer she seemed insecure. Sometimes she'd just cling to me and cry. I couldn't figure it out. I was only going to be a one hundred seventy miles away and I certainly wasn't interested in finding someone to replace her. I expressed my puzzlement to Emily sometime during the summer.
"You don't get it do you?"
I shook my head.
"She's petrified she'll lose you to one of those university hotties."
I was dumbfounded.
"Emily, she knows I love her ... and I'd never hurt her. I want to spend my life with her ... I've told her that over and over..."
"Jake ... we all know too many couples who have broken up when one went off to school ... you know most times absence doesn't make the hear grow fonder."
I knew she was right, but I just couldn't imagine a future without Allison. We had been friends for a long time before we were more than that. I also knew life was uncertain but even as an eighteen year old I knew she was the one. I was a one woman man and she was that woman. Plus the fact that Allison had grown into a beauty. I was the one who should have been insecure leaving her — but somehow I wasn't.
So I spent a lot of time reassuring Allison of my love and of course showing her my schedule for the next two years which was packed with very difficult courses. Being a paramedic was not for the faint of heart or for those who were not dedicated to the profession.
And then for the first time my life was turned upside down.
About a week before Pete and I were to leave for college, Teri was killed. She and her mother were coming home one night from her aunt's house when they were t-boned by a drunk. Teri was on the passenger side and took the brunt of the hit. She died immediately. Pete and I had both at the firehouse when the call came in. He wasn't working but was just hanging out until Teri got there. They had a date that night.
We were in the first aid car at the scene. The cars were so smashed that we didn't recognize it as belonging to Teri's mom, until we pulled her out. She was only semi conscious and kept calling out for Teri. Pete and I and the rest of the team worked furiously to get Teri out but it was obvious that she was gone. Pete held her hand in the back of the aid car all the way to the hospital. He knew it was hopeless but he was a professional and held it together until he's made sure Teri's mom would be okay and Teri's dad and sisters showed up.
I took him to my house and woke my parents. I would never forget his look of loss as he sat at our big wooden kitchen table with his hands around a coffee mug as he sobbed. My mother had her arms around him.
The whole town mourned. Teri and her family were well-liked in the community. It was probably a good thing the drunk was killed at the scene or lynching might have come back to Cherokee County.
That was the night I vowed that I would never have more than one drink or beer in a day and I would never drive impaired.
A week later Pete was gone. He joined the Navy for five years so he could get Corpsman training.
All of this seemed to make Allison even more insecure.
"I just don't know how I could live without you Jake." She said one evening as we sat in her front porch swing. "Pete is devastated. I don't know how he made it through the funeral. And now he's gone off to the Navy. She held me tight. How could that happen Jake? They were so happy together."
I was pulled from my thoughts by my ringing cell phone. Maybe it was Allison. No caller ID said "Pete".
"Pete, what's up?"
"Jake I need a big favor." I could barely hear him over the country music in the background.
"Whatever you need Pete."
"I'm going to get good and drunk tonight and I need you to come get me ... cause I'm going to be in no condition to drive."
It already sounded like he was well on his way. But I knew Pete, like me would never get in a car after drinking. Pete was supposed to be spending the weekend in Tulsa with his girl, Jessica. What the hell happened?
"Okay, just tell me where you are."
There was a pause.
"Yeah man ... I'm at Mike's Roadhouse ... you know where it is right?"
I did know. It was most of the way to Tulsa just off Highway 64, north of Broken Arrow ... maybe sixty five or seventy miles away. Well hell I didn't have anything else to do at 9:30 on a Saturday night — might as well go pick up Pete. He was my best friend and I owed him.
"See you in about an hour and a half ... want to tell me what the drunk is about?"
Another pause. I waited.
"She dumped me..."
"Okay, Pete. I'll be there soon. Pete?"
"Are you at the bar?"
"I want you to give your keys to the bartender and then tell him I want to talk to him. Okay?"
"Hold on Jake ... kinda busy here ... had to get his attention..."
About thirty seconds later a voice said, "Hello?"
"Are you the bartender?"
"One of them."
"Did you get the keys from my friend?"
"Thanks. I'm on my way to get him ... I'll be there in about ninety minutes. Okay?"
"Got ya covered man ... as long as you're here before closing."
"What's he drinkin?"
"Think you could slow them down a bit?"
I hung up and grabbed my coat and keys and went to my truck. I figured Pete was too smart to drive impaired but that's why it's called "impaired" so I figured it was the smart thing to do to have the bartender keep his keys.
It had started to rain. It was a cold late fall rain and the wind was whipping it around. Several minutes later I turned onto Highway 51 toward Tulsa.
Shit, shit, shit! I thought. Jess dumped him.
But this break up was par for the course. Ever since Pete lost Teri, he just couldn't maintain a relationship. Iraq and Afghanistan hadn't made it any better. He, like me, had become an adrenaline junky and he also had been a Special Reconnaissance Corpsman. Pete had recognized where he was going and got out after putting in his five years, but he had stayed in the reserves and now served with a Marine unit in Tulsa. The reason Pete missed my farewell dinner was because he had a one-day make-up drill with his reserve unit.
He told me at every monthly drill they asked for volunteers to go over there. He also told me he was sorely tempted. They always needed experienced corpsmen. I thought it was mainly Jessica that kept him around. And now that I wasn't going to be working with him any longer ... well I'd cross that bridge when I got to it. I also knew if Pete went back this time I might never see him again. Sometimes it sounded tempting to me too. If I didn't have Allison, might I ask the Navy for a waver to go back in? If they weren't interested then I knew some civilian contractors who might need a good paramedic. Probably pay better too.
These thoughts raced through my mind as I drove, although in the back of my mind was the nagging thought that I'd not heard from Allison since I saw her off Friday morning.