Sometimes, when it’s quiet, I can remember what my life was like before moving to Cedar Springs. I remember my brothers and sisters, and how traumatic it was being separated from my mother. I remember being picked up and carried outside. It was the first time I had been outside, and the cold and the bright sunlight stunned me for a moment. I was placed in something I later learned was a car and we started moving, and I got sick from sliding around on the back seat every time we turned. We finally stopped and they carried me into the house and put me on the floor. I was kind of wobbly, but that soon passed. They gave me some water and a biscuit and seemed to think that was all I needed. I looked around for more, but that was all I got.
There were a couple of kids in the house, and one of them, a boy like me, picked me up and said I was his. He smelled okay, and he petted me and made me feel at home, as much as I could feel at home without my mother there.
Things improved immediately, or so it seemed, when I got my own bowl and a blanket and a place to lie down. I slept a lot, and that helped.
I got swatted on the nose with a rolled up newspaper a couple of times until I learned what they were trying to tell me, and after that I stood by the door until they let me out, but sometimes it was hard to hold it in and then I got swatted again. But that passed, and I grew up pretty fast. The boy’s name was Jack, I found out, and he had two sisters, neither of whom paid much attention to me, and I was okay with that, even though they smelled better than Jack.
I guess I was there about six months when Jack said it was time I learned a few things. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I liked him a lot by this time, so I was prepared to do whatever he wanted. What he wanted was to teach me to be a sled dog, which was kind of tough because by now it was summer, but Jack built a sled of sorts, with wheels from an old baby carriage. He tied me to the front of the sled and I had to pull him around the neighborhood. I had gotten my size by then, and was strong for my age, so it was no problem, and kinda fun, especially when Jack cut across old Mr. Carter’s lawn and Mr. Carter came out and yelled at us. Jack always laughed when that happened.
By the time I was five and as full grown as I was ever going to get, I was a full member of the family, and I was as upset as everyone else when Jack joined up and was sent to Afghanistan. He told us he would be all right, and not to worry, but we did anyway. He said he’d be back soon, and since I wasn’t sure how long ‘soon’ meant I couldn’t take the chance of missing him, so I spent a lot of time by the front door.
One day something must have happened because everyone was crying. I didn’t know what it was for some time, until I heard someone say ‘Jack’, and then I knew something must have happened to him to make everybody cry. I crawled behind the sofa so nobody would see me and lay down, shaking all over and fearing the worst.
Months went by and I had the distinct impression that they were talking about Jack a lot, and seemed quite cheerful, considering all the crying at first. I gathered from this that he must be okay, and one day one of the sisters told me Jack would be home soon. I spent most of the day by the front door, again unsure of just what ‘soon’ meant, but determined not to miss him. And then, not one day later, he was there. A car stopped in front of the house and Jack got out, though he seemed to be a lot slower than I remembered him to be. He was on crutches, and one of his legs looked real funny.
I was first at the door when he came in and he scratched my ears and said hello, and then his sisters and mom and dad grabbed him and led him into the living room where he sat on the sofa and I lay on the floor beside him. I was so glad to see him again, and I know he was glad to see me. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He looked a lot older than when he left, as if something had happened to him, or he had seen things he didn’t want to see. He was having trouble walking, I could see that, but there seemed to be something else, something inside him that was also hurt.
He answered all their questions in a cheerful voice, but I had heard his voice so many times I knew it was a false cheerfulness, because it just wasn’t him. I think his family had the same impression, because they became more cheerful than ever. It wasn’t until he said IED that I understood. I didn’t know what IED meant, but I knew that it had hurt him.
After dinner he and I sat on the porch until it got dark, just talking in the cool September night. He told me all about it, and all I could do was be there for him, attentive and loving.
“We were on patrol,” he said quietly, the light from the living room windows on his face, his eyes closed. “Five of us, me and Frank in the lead, Bobby and Raoul in the rear. Sergeant Kratz was an old Iraq hand, and he told us to be careful, not to bunch up, to look around all the time, note what the locals were doing or not doing. Another group had taken some fire from the village the day before, so we were on full alert. We had just turned a corner when there was an explosion. Sergeant Kratz was killed instantly and I took some iron in the legs and went down. Automatic fire was coming from one of the buildings, and I tried to crawl away, but couldn’t move my legs. I was trying to pull myself along by my hands when Frank grabbed me. Frank was wounded too, but he pulled me back around the corner out of the line of fire. He saved my life. Frank got a medal and I got my life. He got some pressure pads on the legs and called for a chopper. Frank and Raoul laid down some fire and Bobby was able to recover Sergeant Kratz’s body.”
He was silent for some time, and I lay my head in his lap. He scratched my ears and said, “They came and got us to a hospital where they fixed us up as best they could, then it was back to the States for me for more operations and rehab.” More silence, the night cooling down, crickets and tree frogs doing some pretty good two part harmony somewhere off in the distance.
“Don’t know why we’re there, old boy,” he said finally, his voice low, and I could tell he was serious because he never called me old boy unless he was serious about something. “Don’t know why we’re there. They don’t want us there, and a lot of good guys are getting killed for nothing. Killed for nothing. Don’t know why we’re there.”
Something nearby hollered in the night, a cat, out prowling about, up to no good. “It’s good to see you again, buddy,” he said. “I’m on crutches now, but the docs say pretty soon I’ll be ready to be fitted for a prosthetic. They’re amazing these days, almost as good as having your real leg. As soon as I get it fitted we’ll start to walk again. Remember how we used to walk along the river? How nice it was in the summer? We’ll do that again, old boy. Just you and me, just like old times.”
Just you and me. The words sounded good. We sat there on the porch for a long time, in the dark, until the living room lights went out and his mom called to ask if he was all right. He said he was and she said goodnight, and his dad and sisters said they’d see him in the morning, and the house was dark and silent. And still we sat on the porch, listening to the crickets and the tree frogs, thinking our thoughts.
I rolled the words over in my mind. Just you and me. Just you and me. And I thought, that’s how it was, that’s how it’s always been. Just you and me. Finally, hours later it seemed, he yawned and said it was time to turn in. I followed him upstairs and lay down on the floor at the foot of the bed, awake until I was sure he was asleep.
Yes, Cedar Springs is a good place to be.