She woke up to another hot morning. Her head throbbed from the shots of Bacardi she tossed back until midnight as she surfed the internet, including the VA for a Daniel O’Conner. She found nothing.
For breakfast, she ate a donut and washed it down with rum. She pulled on a soiled khaki T-shirt and a pair of old jeans and slipped into her combat boots, the dog tags tucked between her breasts.
Sam knotted her ponytail, grabbed a canvas bag, stuffed it into her backpack and left. She had to be at work at twelve hundred hours.
If O’Conner slept off the booze, he might be lucid and recognize her.
At the liquor store, she filled the canvas bag with candy bars, cookies, trail mix, wrapped sandwiches and soda pop then headed down Broadway.
The morning sun streaked the sky orange and pink. Yellow rays sliced skyscrapers and turned windows into furnaces. Sam hurried south.
When she crossed Broadway at 6th, the same sun exposed skid row into a stunning morning of neglect. Lines of men pissed against walls, women squatted. She heard weeping.
Sweat ran down her armpits, her head pounded. Sam felt shaky, chewed sand, and looked around. Where was Marley? She stumbled backwards into a gate.
“Baby, whatchu doin’? You one fine piece of ass.” The man reached over and yanked at her backpack.
“No!” Sam yelled. She didn’t want to collect Marley’s severed arms and legs to send home to his parents. “No,” she whimpered, grabbing the sides of her head with her hands. “I can’t do it,” she said sliding to the ground.
“Shit, you crazy. This is my spot, bitch. Outa here!” he said and kicked her.
Sam moaned and gripped her side. She saw a plastic water bottle lying on the sidewalk, crawled over and drank from it. A sign with arrows pointing to Little Tokyo and the Fashion District cut through the vapor of her flashback. Iraqi women wore abayas, not shorts and tank tops. Sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, Sam hit her fist against her forehead until it hurt.
She saw the American flag hoisted on a pulley from a cherry picker over the 6th Street Bridge, heard the click clack of a shopping cart, and the music of Lil Wayne. The sounds pulled her away from the memory, away from a place that had no walls to hang onto.
Sam held the bottle as she crawled to the edge of the sidewalk. She took deep breaths, focused and glanced around. What the fuck was she doing sitting on a curb in skid row with a dirty water bottle? “Or you’ll end up like that homeless man you were staring at.” “Oh Jesus.” Sam dropped the bottle in the gutter and trudged toward San Pedro Street.
She had thought that when she came home, she’d get better, but living with her mother almost destroyed her. It began slowly, little agitations about housework, arguments that escalated into slammed doors. Then, one day, her mother called George Bush and Dick Cheney monsters who should be in prison. She accused Sam of murder for killing people who did nothing to the United States. Sam lunged at her, when she stumbled over a chair and fell. Her mother ran screaming into the bathroom and locked the door. “Get outa my house and don’t ever come back!” “Don’t worry! You’re a piece of shit for a mother, anyway!” She left and stayed with her friend Jenny until she told her to stop drinking and get her act together.
In her combat boots, Sam scuffled along, hoping to catch O’Conner awake and coherent.
She turned left. The shopping cart poked out from the trash bin. Sam walked to the dumpster and peered around it. O’Conner wasn’t there, but his bags and blankets were. She stepped into his corner and was using the toe of her boot to kick away mouse droppings when someone grabbed her hair and yanked back her head, forcing her to her knees. Terrified, she caught a glimpse of orange.
“Private First Class Samantha Cummings, United States Army, Infantry Unit 23. Sergeant!” She raised her arms. Sweat streamed down her face.
His grip remained firm.
“Staff Sergeant O’Conner, I’ve brought provisions. They’re in my backpack. Sandwiches, candy bars, pretzels!”
He let go of her hair. The ponytail fell between her shoulders.
“I’m going to take off my backpack, stand, and face you, Sergeant.” Her fingers trembled, searched for the Velcro straps and ripped it aside. The bag slid to the ground. She rose with her back to him and turned around.
She saw the war in his eyes. “It’s me. Frap.” His skin, filthy and sun-burnt couldn’t hide the yellow hue of infection. He smelled of feces and urine. His jaw was slack, his gaze unsteady. “You want something to eat? I got all kinds of stuff,” Sam said. Her emotions buried in sand, began to tunnel, pushing aside lies and deceit.
O’Conner tore open the backpack and emptied out the canvas bag. “Booze.”
She knelt beside him and unwrapped a ham and cheese sandwich. “No booze. Here, have this,” she said handing him the food. “Go on.” Her arm touched his as she encouraged him to eat.
O’Conner sat back on his heels. “It’s all—”
Sam leaned forward. “Go on.”
“It’s all. Stuck!”
He shook his head. “It’s all, stuck!” he cried. He grabbed the sandwich and scarfed it down in three bites. Mayonnaise dripped on his scruffy beard. He kept his sights on Sam as he tore open the Frito bag and took a mouthful. He ripped apart the sack of Oreo cookies and ate those too. “Go away,” he said as black-and-white crumbs fell from his mouth.
Sam shook her head.
“Leave. Me. Alone!”
“I don’t want to.”
He drew his knees up to his chest, shut his eyes and leaned his head against the metal dumpster.
Here was her comrade-in-arms, in an invisible war, where no one knew of his bravery, where ground zero happened to be wherever you stood.
“You saved me from Jackson and Canali when they tried to rape me in the bathroom. I should have been able to protect myself. And when they tried to discharge me. For doing nothing. You stood up for me. Remember?” O’Conner didn’t move. “I never, thanked you. Cause it showed weakness.”
O’Conner struggled to his knees. “I don’t know you!” His breath smelled rancid.
“Yeah, you do.”
“I don’t know you!” he cried.
“You know me. You saved me twice, dude!”
O’Conner stumbled to his feet and gripped the rail of his shopping cart, his spirit as razed as the smoking remains of a humvee. He shoved off on his morning trek. For how long, Sam wondered.
She gathered the bags of food and put them in the canvas bag. She kicked his rags to the side, took his blankets, flung them out, folded them and rearranged the cardboard floor. She put the blankets on top and hid the bag of food under his rags.
Emotions overcame her. Loyalty, compassion, anger, love—feelings so strong tears fell like a long-awaited rain.
Sam couldn’t save O’Conner, but she could save herself.
She ripped off her dog tags and threw them in the dumpster. Once home, she’d take down the flag, fold it twelve times and tuck the picture of Marley and herself inside it. She’d throw out her military clothes and combat boots. Pour the rum down the sink. She’d go to the VA, badger them until she got an appointment. Join AA. She’d arrive and leave work on time.
The morning began to cook. It was the same sun, but a new day. Sam walked in the opposite direction of O’Conner.
DC Diamondopolous is an award-winning short story and flash fiction writer published worldwide. DC’s short stories have appeared in online literary magazines: Antioch University’s Lunch Ticket, Fiction on the Web, Eskimo Pie, Five on the Fifth, Five 2 One and many more. DC’s stories are also in print anthologies: Crab Fat Lit, Blue Crow, and Scarborough Fair. DC won second place in the University of Toronto’s Literary Contest for 2016 for the short story, Taps, and won two Soul Making-Keats honorary mentions in 2014 for The Bell Tower and Taps.
(Previously published in A Days Encounter, Fiction on the Web and Through the Gaps.)